With one epic fantasy tale looming fresh in my memory, I thought it would be a good time to go back and get some of these other series out of the way so I can clear my reading schedule. I'm bad about starting a series and then not reading all of them together, because I want to vary my authors a bit. When I was younger, I read almost nothing but Stephen King, and while he's a good writer, I could feel his influence on my style of writing. Mixing up my authors, I thought, would be a good way to avoid that. It's been a good rule, I guess, but now I just want to pick up the stories that have impressed me so far this year. Peter V. Brett is one of those authors.
The Desert Spear is the second in the Demon Cycle, which is an interesting blend of horror and fantasy. The main character of the series (as near as I can tell) is Arlen Bales, who runs away from his family after seeing his mother die at the hands of demons who rise up out of the ground at sunset every night to kill whatever they find. He goes on to become the Warded Man, the only person in a long time to take up arms against the demons. Most people live within warded buildings that the demons can't enter, living in fear every night. There are also prophecies that speak of the Deliverer, the man who will lead the world in a battle that will rid the demons of the world forever. Arlen, as the Warded Man, is not convinced he is that man. Most of the folks he encounters think otherwise. There is one man who sees Arlen as anything but the Deliverer. He is Ahmann Jardir, the leader of the Krasians, and he believes that he is that man.
A third of the novel is devoted to giving the full character development of Jardir, the leader of a desert tribe whose religion and culture is based on warriors and battling the demons. Jardir was mentioned in The Warded Man as a friend to Arlen who betrayed him in order to gain possession of the Spear of Kaji, which the prophecies say will be carried by the Deliverer. Little is known about Jardir in the first book, or why he betrayed Arlen, but now we get the full back story of that betrayal and how it fits into the larger story of this series. It turns out that Jardir has been led by his wife, a mystic healer who can see into the future using dice carved from the bones of demons, to be in a position to become the Deliverer. It reminded me a little of Dune, in that his position is less one of destiny and more one of machination, and it sets an interesting conflict to drive both Jardir and Arlen. That Jardir ends his story thinking that Arlen is dead, when we already know otherwise, only adds a little intrigue to that conflict.
The thing is, the first book was about Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer, and I was more interested in seeing how that story continued than in learning about Jardir and Krasian culture. Don't get me wrong; the culture was fascinating, and Jardir's rise to power was compelling, but it seemed like a huge aside to everything that happened in the first book. It's also necessary -- I get the feeling that a key part of the rest of this series is going to be the battle over who the Deliverer actually will be -- but I also see it as a bit of a risk on Brett's part to set aside Arlen's story to tell Jardir's. I'll admit that when I first started reading the book, it was less a using-every-available-moment-to-read-more thing, and more an if-I-can-get-through-this-section-I-can-get-back-to-Arlen-so-I-really-ought-to-just-read-another-chapter-SIGH thing.
I'm still digging the series, though, and I like the way that Brett is building the story. It's taking on an epic feel, somewhat similar to what George R.R. Martin is doing with A Song of Ice and Fire, but it feels a bit more rooted in the fantasy genre than Martin's story. It feels a little less important, but no less entertaining. Brett has a real knack for characterization, evidenced clearly with his expansion of Renna Tanner's character. Renna was introduced in the first book in an aside that gave Arlen the impetus to leave his hometown, but here he gives her more depth and background. It's a horrible thing she experiences, and it's easy to sympathize with her, and the events surrounding her upbringing were compelling. I didn't like the way that Brett stopped telling her story at the most important point, only to pick it up again in 100 pages, nor did I like the way he adapted her character to something all together different by the end of the novel. I can understand wanting to develop her character, but there wasn't much explanation behind how and why she made that change.
Another thing I didn't like was Brett's depiction of the women in the books. They're mostly strong women (Leesha, in fact, is so strong that she strikes me as a bit of a Mary Sue character, which I didn't notice in the first book), but they seem to be primarily objects for other men to desire. Leesha is a catalyst who drives the decisions of some of the main characters in the book, and it's mostly because she's desired by all of them. I was able to overlook some of the oversexualization of the woman in Krasia (a culture that glorified warriors and made slaves of everyone else would logically view women as objects to possess), but when even the major female characters were being depicted that way, I started to worry. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin portrays his female characters as ones who seek power in a world where they are granted little, using sex as a way to manipulate the men around them; in the Demon Cycle, there are women of power who are just sexualized. This might be part of the reason why this series feels less important than Martin's.
All that being said, I'm not going to give up on the series. Brett still hasn't taken his female characters to the point that Piers Anthony does in ... well, everything, and I'm willing to stick it out to see how the story ends.