The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett
The Desert Spear is the second in Peter Brett’s ‘Demon Cycle’, and the sequel to the enjoyable The Painted Man. I enjoyed the first novel, but it didn’t blow me away, and although The Desert Spear has built my interest in this series, I’m still not quite convinced. It’s certainly a more assured release than the original, and I enjoyed it more, but there are many elements which hold it back from greatness.
The Desert Spear continues the stories of The Painted Man’s main POV characters, Arlen, Leesha and Rojer following the battle of Cutter’s Hollow, now renamed Deliverer’s Hollow with many believing Arlen, the Painted Man, to be the Deliverer of legend. However, Arlen and co. don’t show up until about 250 pages of the novel, with the opening telling the story of Jardir, the Krasian Shar’Dama’Ka who betrayed Arlen in The Painted Man, stealing the Spear of Kaji and naming himself the Deliverer. Jardir has led a Krasian army to the north, seeking to subjugate the northern kingdoms of Thesa to prepare for the final conflict with the Demons. Another minor character from The Painted Man plays an increased role in The Desert Spear; Renna of Tibbett’s Brook, Arlen’s betrothed before he fled his hometown to become a Messanger, finds herself left alone with her bestial rapist father Harl.
Brett doesn’t expand his setting at all in The Desert Spear, instead giving us more detailed depictions of places already seen. This is actually very well handled as interesting, but poorly developed, locations from the first novel become much better fleshed out in this book. The martial cruelty of Fort Krasia and the parochial small-mindedness of Tibbett’s Brook stand out in particular. I had been concerned as to how much Brett could really achieve in the world building in this series, with the world failing to quite come alive for me in The Painted Man, but this depth rather than breadth approach serves the series well. Still, the world of the ‘Demon Cycle’ is really all about atmosphere, the atmosphere of fear created by the nightly rise of the corelings. We gain a few new hints about the very interesting sounding ancient past of this setting, not much, but tantalising nonetheless, and I certainly hope to learn more in future novels.
The Desert Spear doesn’t really forward the plot a huge amount from the much faster paced The Painted Man, although I don’t know if this is nearly as much a problem as some critics have suggested. It’s true that the focus upon flashbacks might alienate some, but I personally loved learning Jardir’s past, with these sequences standing as some of my favourite in the book. Again, many didn’t like the sudden switch to Renna’s storyline, and at first I could see their point, but as the novel went on and I could begin to see where Brett was going with this it all made sense. Renna’s character arc is probably the best of the series so far, and the one which I’m most looking forward to following up in The Daylight War. Brett’s writings are still somewhat problematic though, with the clumsy parallels to Islam in the Krasians in the original only getting worse in this novel. However, the worst crime of this novel has to lie in its depiction of rape; the rape of Leesha in The Painted Man was a shocking moment, largely because rape is something of a ‘no go area’ for writers of genre fiction. We can handle murder, but rape is just too dark to write about unless you’re going to do so with remarkable sensitivity. Peter V. Brett lacks this sensitivity. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a woman who manages to put her life back together after rape rather than falling apart, but just how easily Leesha recovers is somewhat nauseous.
Still, in terms of basic prose Brett improves from The Painted Man, with The Desert Spear possessing that easy readability which makes writers such as Rothfuss and Sanderson such a pleasure. Brett is seriously good at writing action sequences, but he has a decent skill with dialogue too. Brett may not have any particular literary style which sets him apart from others, such as Martin or Rothfuss have, but then again neither does Brandon Sanderson and he’s one of the best writers in the genre.
The characterisation isn’t perfect, but where it’s good it’s very good. I already mentioned how impressed I was by Renna’s story arc, and this character came alive for me in a way which the other main female character, Leesha, never quite did. Leesha is that most common type of female lead in fantasy, perfect in almost every way yet through this lack of flaws seeming utterly empty next to the better developed male characters. Leesha’s wit is a redeeming aspect of the character, but her bland perfection turns me of her; the selfish, volatile and not too bright Renna Tanner impresses me much more. Jardir goes from the intriguing enigma of The Painted Man to a well developed and complexly motivated anti-hero, with an interesting contrast between his genuine belief in his status as the Deliverer and his guilt over his betrayal of Arlen, the Par’Chin. I liked the character of Abban too, a ‘khaffit’ second class citizen who nonetheless rises to a position of power, and Rojer is every bit as likeable in The Desert Spear as he was in The Painted Man, although he doesn’t end up with a huge amount to do. The central figure of Arlen is very well handled; often, when the naive farmboy becomes a hero of legend, they lose their humanity and charm (just look at Rand al’Thor in the middle Wheel of Time books), but Brett does a great job of making Arlen incredibly badass yet still firmly human. Leesha aside, these are some very well drawn characters, and even Leesha isn’t beyond redemption.
The Desert Spear is another good book from Peter V. Brett, but it’s not good enough to call the ‘Demon Cycle’ great. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m definitely going to persevere with this series, but for every moment of brilliance, and there are plenty, there are clumsy elements which drew me out of the story, be it the depiction of rape or Leesha’s poor characterisation. The Desert Spear is a good read, but there’s better fantasy out there. All in all, if you liked The Painted Man, The Desert Spear is a worthy successor.