It disappoints me greatly to see a series that started with so much strength and promise taper away into uninspired repetition with little forward progression, and unfortunately this is what happened for me with Peter Brett’s “Demon Cycle”: some of the formless misgivings I expressed in my review of the previous book, The Desert Spear, seem to have coalesced into sad reality, robbing me of a great deal of the interest I held for this story and preventing me from finishing this third installment.
First there is the re-treading of old ground – from a different perspective, granted, but still it becomes boring quickly enough: for example we see the now famous scene of Jardir’s betrayal of Arlen for the third time. First we witnessed it through Arlen’s eyes in Book 1; then we shared Jardir’s point of view in Book 2: back then it was acceptable because we were following Jardir’s own story and the Krasian culture, but to see that narrative thread re-hashed again through Inevera’s eyes only because the focus of Book 3 is on her, is a bit too much for my tastes.
Then there is the matter of the battles with demons: now that the ancient wards are being brought into play again, strengthening the humans’ response to demonic attacks, the nighttime struggles have become a predictable clash of severed limbs, flaring magic and demon ichor spraying all over the place. The sense of danger, of a struggle against terrible foes that come up from the ground threatening life and sanity, has been lost: true, humanity had to learn how to defend itself and level the playing field sooner or later, but the way it’s been done here has removed all the suspense about the outcome.
When I wrote, in my review of Book 2, that the change in humans felt somewhat forced and too easily achieved, I feared exactly what I could see happening here: people discovering new ways to fight, and new manners of warding, practically every day. I’m not questioning the forward progression, since it had to come into play or everyone would have succumbed to the demons and there would be no story to tell: what I’m questioning is the speed at which it happens, and the almost superhuman traits inherited by those who fight demons on a constant basis. When those traits started involving magic healing of wounds and perception of “auras” and thoughts and emotions (the latter happening practically overnight), I knew it was time for me to give up the struggle.
Add to all that the endless repetition of some details, and you might start to see some of the reasons for my annoyance: Renna and Arlen end most of their conversations with a mutual declaration of love (are they trying to convince me or each other?); Inevera breathes to “find her centre”, sometimes more than once in the same page; magical dice is thrown to determine which paths to choose (and the dice’s response is given in complete, articulated sentences – whatever happened to puzzling, obscure prophecies?). Even speech suffers from these repetitions, especially when artfully coarsened to show the illiteracy of villagers: I reached the point where reading the word “ent” made me break out in a rash….
Characters suddenly shift from interesting individuals to shallow representations of their former selves. Arlen is the Reluctant Hero with A Destiny, and yet he insists on being just the guy next door; Renna should have been a woman finding her strength through adversity, and instead she succumbs to poor rage management and hero worship/love for Arlen, whom she guards with ferocious jealousy; Rojer seems to incarnate a teenager’s wish fulfillment, what with two (not one, but two!) wily and seductive wives who can also double as chorus girls. As for Leesha… well, all my previous fears about her character have turned into sad reality, and she would not be out of place in a daytime soap opera.
The portrayal of women in this last book brings to sharp focus some of the problems I managed to overlook in the previous ones: women are more often than not the victims of rape or exploitation, or they go through life manipulating men through sex. The most glaring example, in The Daylight War, is given through Inevera’s recollected past, culminating in her quite gross initiation rite: how can this kind of detail add to the story? If the goal was to show her rise to power through the means given to Krasian women in such a regimented society, that goal failed miserably in the scene of her wedding night with Jardir, where the consummate pillow dancer, the supreme manipulator, fails to keep her cool under her husband’s “forceful mastery”. Maybe that’s the reason she goes around wearing only diaphanous, revealing clothing, because it’s the only kind of power she can truly exert…
Yet, even outside of Krasian society women don’t fare all that well: their lives appear to be centered around men: their purpose is to catch any likely prospect passing their way, or to stand by their chosen man’s side and be the power behind his throne (what else?), all the while defending their “territory” from encroaching predators, i.e. other women. And when they do act in a more assertive way, like Leesha’s mother, such assertiveness is counterbalanced by a penchant for extra-marital activities, pursued with reckless abandon, that marks them in the most negative way possible. Which makes me miss even more poignantly the only woman with true agency, old Herb Gatherer Bruna.
If all of the above can be ascribed to subjective preferences, the fact remains that the story seems to drag on, more concerned with the various games of emotional musical chairs, or the posturing of warriors from both sides: the real problem, the clear and present danger represented by the corelings, is somewhat shunted to the sidelines, and what was a new and intriguing brand of foes turns into something of a footnote.
When reading becomes a chore, rather than a pleasure, it’s a sign I’d better give up. So I did…
My Rating: 5/10