The Desert Spear – Peter Brett

Unexpected. That’s the first definition that comes to mind about this book, the second in Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle.

The surprise comes from the sudden change of focus from Arlen and Co. (last seen shortly after the bloody victory against a coreling horde) to the Krasian army led by Jardir, intent on conquering the world as the reborn Deliverer. In a series of flashbacks, broken by present-day narrative, Brett gives us Jardir’s life story and his path toward supreme rule of the Krasians, with a new angle on the moment when he comes in possession of the warded spear he stole from Arlen in the previous book.  What’s interesting is that this specific act – while still heinous – is put into a wider context with Jardir’s past and present: even though it doesn’t in the least justify the theft and Arlen’s attempted murder, it shows the circumstances surrounding it and the Krasian leader’s feelings as the events are re-enacted, and fills the broader picture with more details.

The Krasian way of life is a harsh and cruel one that has no place for mercy or thoughtfulness: unlike their northern counterparts, who hide in abject fear of the night, the Krasians actively seek battle with the enemy, having built a culture that prizes sacrifice and glorious death. Like their distant cousins, though, they are bound for defeat, because of that almost careless waste of resources that reduces their numbers in an inexorable way.   Your people live to fight, while mine fight to live – this is how one character sums up the differences between the two peoples: in light of the revelations this book brings to light, it remains to be seen if they will find a middle ground, and through it, a way to beat the enemy.

Jardir himself is a source of contradictions, from my point of view: on one hand I can’t form a bond with this character – who is so tightly focused on his desire to create a united front against the demons that for him this end justifies all means, no matter how cruel – but on the other I can see quite clearly where he comes from as a person, how the events in his life, and the people around him (especially his politically shrewd first wife Inevera), come to shape his character, and his destiny.  This is the mark of good writing, because it makes me see the persons behind the characters, makes me understand what makes them tick: even though I don’t like Jardir’s methods, I can still care for the way his story goes, and that’s more than enough.

A further element that breathes strong life in this second book  is the introduction of a new threat with the coreling princes, the real power – mental and physical – behind the demon hordes: as fascinating as it is to discover these creatures and to look at events from their point of view, their appearance means that even the newly discovered wards, and the pro-active stance humanity is slowly taking against the attacks, might not be enough to stem the demonic hordes, let alone vanquish them. These new players are indeed raising the stakes and at the same time showing a different – and more worrisome – aspect in the nightly attacks: what before looked like the work of a mindless army of evil, now appears as a planned campaign, whose outcome looks far from predictable.

Once the focus goes back to the previous book’s three heroes, we are introduced to many changes: Leesha’s former home has been turned into a fighters’ village, where everyone’s skills are being honed against the demons; it’s heartening to witness how quickly the people flourish with a little hope and courage, despite the awareness that they, like all the inhabitants of the north, will soon find themselves fighting on two fronts – the Krasian invasion and the nightly corelings’ attacks.  As heartening as this vision can be, after witnessing the terror in which this world is plunged night after night, I can’t avoid feeling it’s somewhat forced: the change is too swift, too radical to effectively suspend my disbelief. Leesha herself turns from a convincingly headstrong woman into a super-heroine-of-all-trades: her healing skills work side by side with exceptional warding abilities and the fashioning of new weapons, making her into the de facto leader of the community – all this in the brief space of a few months.

Only Peter Brett’s compelling narrative managed to keep my suspension of disbelief up and running, and in some places it was nonetheless an effort. As fascinating as the world-building is, and continues to be, there are moments when the characterization goes somewhat over the top: Leesha’s path is one such example, compounded by her later girlish fascination with Jardir – all built on secretive glances and blushing cheeks: I surprised myself thinking, time and again, that if old Healer Bruna had been present, she would have brought Leesha’s back to reason with a well-placed blow from her walking stick.  Jardir suffers as well: this fearsome warrior, imbued with the moral conviction of being the new Deliverer, falls head-over-heels for Leesha and behaves like a hormone-crazed teenager from their very first encounter, and Inevera – a woman for whom the phrase “political expediency” seems to have been invented – also lapses into uncharacteristic conduct.  Nothing major, nor anything that would turn me off the book, granted, but still at the time it read like the betrayal of characters that had been drawn quite well until that moment.

All this is however counterbalanced by the narrative thread concerning Arlen and Renna Tanner, who comes on the scene as a full-fledged main character after her swift presentation in the previous book: her harrowing past of violence and abuse gives a solid background to her evolution, and makes her a believable ally/sidekick for Arlen, not least because she acts as a mirror for the dangers inherent in wearing magic wards on your own skin. This is one of the details that I most enjoyed in this story, that the way to battle demons on their own ground requires a price – a steep one: where it will lead some of the players still remains to be seen, and this further uncertainty is a promise for a satisfying continuation in the next book.

My Rating: 7,5/10

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