Saturday, May 12, 2012
100 Books #41 - Peter V. Brett's THE DESERT SPEAR
I really enjoyed Peter V. Brett's debut novel, The Warded Man, a book that pretty much marked my cautious return to reading epic fantasy after long years of avoiding the genre like the plague. Indeed, I didn't take it up for the genre; I heard about it from a professional fiction editor, my friend Annetta Ribken, who shared in some detail the story of how Brett had first composed it, on his iPhone, on the subway, during his commute each day.
How could I not be curious? And my curiosity was richly rewarded with a solidly enjoyable book. Yes, its setting was largely pseudo-European and yes, there was a bog-standard obscure-boy-comes-of-age-as-the-greatest-hero plot*, but the world was unusual for all its pseudo-medieviality, which quality had a more than usually logical explanation for being part of said world. It's hard to advance as a culture when every single night huge destructive demons materialize out of nothing and destroy everything built and everyone they can get at. One might wonder, indeed, how these people made it to building frame houses and smelting steel (about which, see note *** below).
The characters, too, were good. In addition to the kid-who-would-be-hero there was a girl who grew up to be a great healer and another kid who grew up to be a great bard who can charm demons with his fiddle-playing, all well-developed and likable.
So of course when Brett published a sequel, I snapped it up immediately. And I tore into it immediately.
Over two years ago.
What happened? Well, The Desert Spear doesn't just pick up where The Warded Man left off, it goes more or less back to the beginning and tells someone else's story. And that someone else happens to be a bit of a villain in that first story, the leader of a fierce, lean ubertribe of desert warriors whose entire culture has been warped and shaped by the need to continually battle demons that are, on the whole, much fiercer, much more numerous and much more able to just run completely wild out there in the desert than the demons do in the thickly settled and forested lands in which most of The Warded Man took place. And while I could definitely see where all of this could and would be interesting, I wasn't really feeling it in the spring of 2010. And I had other delights crammed into my Kindle. Kindles, as I have discussed before, cause some of the worst manifestations of Shiny Object Syndrome, maybe ever. Plus, I was still frantically composing and posting brand new sonnets every single day over at that other blog of mine.
Always though, The Desert Spear has been waiting for me, patiently. It knew I'd get to it someday. And so I did.
And how glad am I? Very!
As I said above, the first third of The Desert Spear concerns one Jardir, whom readers of The Warded Man will recognize as someone who first befriended and then betrayed The Warded Man. So as the reader starts up with this second book, the point of view character is someone we've basically been trained to hate -- meaning that Brett has his work cut out for him in terms of engaging his readers as he tells the story of Jardir's upbringing, training, marriage and ascent to glory. Brett succeeds brilliantly with this, not because he tries, but because he doesn't; Jardir's story is simply offered up: a little boy is torn from his family and thrown into a brutal warrior culture and makes spectacularly good.
What sells it for me is the culture of this desert tribe itself, sort of fantasy world take on Islam the way Frank Herbert's Dune novels have, in the Fremen culture, a science fictional take on Islam. As the latter is warped by the extreme lack of water and the presence of a powerful psychedelic and life-extending drug, the former is warped by the constant need to destroy demons, which Jardir's people regard as a religious obligation. And as we know from the first book, it is from these people that The Warded Man gets most of his most important training in demon-fighting, and in warding, the intricate system of magical symbols that keep demons at bay, keep the mind free of their influence, keep weapons sharp and allow ordinary weapons to act as demon bunker busters by virtue of being inscribed with them.
And yes, the friendship between the Warded Man and Jardir is retold from Jardir's perspective, but it still** feels like a fresh tale; by the time Jardir meets the Warded Man, Jardir is a character in whom the reader's interest and yes, sympathies are invested just as fully as they were in the Warded Man in the first book. This time, we see the pivotal scene coming, but that foreknowledge only multiplies its power.
The action does, eventually, return to the pseudo-European north of this demon-infested world***, mostly because Jardir's messiah complex (which is what led him to betray the Warded Man, because his friend also showed signs of possible messiah-hood and There Can Be Only One) has been carefully nurtured by his wife and his tribes. The prophecies declare that the messiah will bring all humanity under one demon-fighting rule, and that nore or less means jihad (I say more or less because as far as Jardir and most of his people are concerned, it's a war between peoples only during the day; at night, when the demons come up from underground, all men are brothers united in demon-killing). Once up there, Jardir learns what the reader has long known: that the Warded Man yet lives, and that there are still two Mu'ad Dibs. Mu'ads Dib? And mayhem and big drama ensue as the two other main characters from The Warded Man are drawn into weird double orbits around the Warded Man and Jardir.
Little to none of this tension is resolved at the end of The Desert Spear; one convention Brett is uninterested in tampering with is Thou Shalt Write Series****. I don't think I'll let two post-publication years go by before I take up the third book, The Daylight War, though.
*However, unlike a lot of the stuff that drove me away from the genre, the titular Warded Man becomes a hero through his own efforts and choices. While there is a prophecy that he seems to be on the way to fulfilling in the first book, Brett takes great pains to make his seeming fulfillment of bits of it a case of coincidence rather than DESTINY, which I appreciated. And in the second book, the Warded Man spends a lot of time screaming at people that he is not the Deliverer, that even if he were he wouldn't tell them because as soon as people convince themselves that a messianic hero is in their midst they stop making any effort to help or save themselves. This, this I applaud.
**Though perhaps this is a function of the relatively long period of time between my personal readings of The Warded Man and The Desert Spear.
***Hints that I only barely noticed in the first book are a bit stronger in the second, hints that suggest what we're getting here is weird post-apocalyptic science fiction rather than or in addition to fantasy; a past in which humanity numbered in the billions and had all sorts of big science at its disposal is alluded to, which brings up all sorts of interesting questions for this reader. Are the demons some kind of product of big science gone wrong? Are they a religious punishment for the arrogance of that science (as the predominant northern religion of The Warded Man/The Desert Spear likes to claim)? Are the demons aliens from another world or dimension? Or were they there all along, just waiting for humanity to screw up, just enough?
****Brett says when the series is done it will be a quintet. With a sixth stand-alone book "with some shared characters." So, not a sextet, because...? Just kidding, Peat.