HarperVoyager, 2010, 578 pages
Peter Brett’s The Desert Spear continues the post-apocalyptic adventure he began in his highly acclaimed debut, The Warded Man.
The world remains under siege by demonkind stalking the land when the sun goes down. But a new hero has risen from the desert. Claiming to be the mythical Deliverer, Ahmann Jardir now rides alongside the allied desert tribes of Krasia. Jardir and his fellows are on an epic quest to vanquish the demons plaguing the world and bring humanity back from the brink of extinction.
The Desert Spear is the second book in Peter Brett's epic "Demon Cycle," a post-apocalyptic fantasy in which hordes of demons rise from the Earth every night to slaughter every living thing that's not protected behind magical wards. This ended the industrial civilization of the "ancients," and has left mankind fragmented into isolated city-states at a medieval level of technology.
The first book, The Warded Man, was great fun if somewhat cheesy and cliched in parts. The biggest problem with the second book is that the first third is all about a great demon-fighting hero (introduced as a minor antagonist who betrayed the hero in the first book) and his warrior tribe of rapacious Mongol-jihadists who we're obviously supposed to admire, if begrudgingly. Except they're terrible people and it's a terrible culture. Their only real virtue is that they're really good at killing demons. When they aren't killing demons, they are slaughtering each other in Darwinian reindeer games where torture or death is always the penalty for losers, the strong mercilessly prey on the weak, and men have no time for anything that doesn't involve killing or fucking. So any man who has interests outside of killing and fucking — like, say, crafts, trade, art, science — is an "unperson" as low as, well, a woman.
This makes the fact that their leader, Ahmann Jardir, is supposed to be a savior who's going to free the world from the plague of demons, a bit hard to swallow since the people his tribe go a-raping and a-pillaging on their heroic quest could, I think, reasonably ask "What makes you better than the demons?"
Jardir is humanized somewhat — he kind of has to be — but in a "good German" kind of way. He doesn't always like the nastier elements of his society and he thinks some men are unnecessarily cruel, but he doesn't really do much to curb those elements, and he's not above sadistic cruelty himself.
After spending a lot of time with Jardir and his warrior Krasians, who were just a few chapters in the first book of the Demon Cycle, we return to the main characters from book one, who are stock FRPG characters with special abilities. Arlen is the Warded Man, who has tattooed himself with magical wards and become heralded as the Deliverer throughout the Free Kingdoms, a title which his former friend who betrayed him, Jardir, is also claiming. Whereas Jardir has taken up the mantle as a holy calling, Arlen continuously insists he's just a guy who's really good at killing demons and doesn't want to be a messiah. He also insists he's too broken and damaged for a real life or for any squishy romances with women, despite pretty much every woman throwing herself at him. There is a subplot where he returns to his home village and rescues his childhood sweetheart from a mob that's about to burn her as a witch (well, stake her out to be eaten by demons as a murderess) following a really contrived serious of events meant to stir all our righteous sympathy. Of course they run off and become lovers and he teaches her to become a demon-killing machine too.
Finally, there is Leesha, healer, herbalist, and super-hot babe that everyone loves, who is able to cow villagers and warriors alike with her sharp tongue and fiery temperament and handfuls of pepper spray or firecrackers. Many, many chapters are about Leesha and her love life or lack thereof, and her difficult, domineering mother, and Rojer, the bard with magical demon-charming abilities who has an unrequited crush on her.
Then Jardir shows up with his armies, and is so impressed by Leesha and Rojer that rather than razing their village and raping all the women and carrying off Leesha to join his harem, he invites them back to his palace where he woos Leesha properly, and Leesha and Jardir's formidable First Wife (who because of contrived reasons can walk around scantily clad and bossing everyone including her husband, despite most women in their society being confined to burkas). Leesha and Jardir's wives have some catfights, including poisoning attempts and knife fights, Jardir beds Leesha who is totally attracted to this hot hunk of desert warrior whose armies have raped and pillaged all the neighboring lands, and then is able to turn down his marriage proposal without being chained to a wall in his harem.
I'm being a little harsh here, because I cannot overlook how much effort was expended to make Jardir and the Krasians sympathetic, as well as how much of a Mary Sue Leesha is. (In fairness, all of the main characters are basically Player Characters in an RPG so of course the plot and all the NPCs bend around them improbably.) Despite my cynicism and my thinking Jardir is still a dick, this series is still a tasty treat for fans of epic fantasy, on a par with Brandon Sanderson (in both good and bad ways). Besides learning more about the Krasians, we also learn more about the demons/Corelings, who turn out to have many more types and a more sophisticated social structure than we saw in the first book, where they were just a plague of monsters who come out every night to kill everything.
Book two ends without much resolved, but clearly setting up a confrontation between Jardir and the Warded Man for the title of Deliverer, as well as a grand epic battle against the Corelings. Except I think there are several more books in this series, so my guess is the next book will waffle around a bit before delivering the grand finale. We'll see!
Also by Peter Brett: My review of The Warded Man.
My complete list of book reviews.