Few books are as enjoyable and as simultaneously able to make me uncomfortable as Peter Brett’s The Warded Man and The Desert Spear. Sexuality and sexual politics are not aspects I immediately sit down to think about when reading an epic fantasy but when an author weaves those aspects so closely into the narrative of their world they deserve some discussion. The world of Brett’s Demon Trilogy is one nightly besieged by vicious demons bent on eradicating life, human or animal, that stands in in their path. Humanity is trapped, clustered together into frightened huddled masses desperately clinging to life during the daylight hours and cowering in fear during the night. Death is rampant thanks to the demon and as such breeding is maintenance of the population has become not only a biological imperative but cornerstone of the social lives of the people that inhabit Brett’s world.
Ana over at the Book Smugglers in her review of The Warded Man mentions the importance of mother’s in the story and the empowered nature of women as a result of that importance. What she doesn’t mention, and an important distinction I think, is that Mothers are only powerful if they are able to breed a male child. Indeed the title Mother is only granted to women who actually have a male child. This distinction robs women of their power reinforcing their importance as being granted by male authority. This same dichotomy is further reflected in The Desert Spear as the Krasian’s invade the Thesan lands casually using rape during their conquest because they “need strong warriors for the coming fight.” Robbed of choice this is an abject destruction of the power women in Brett’s world wield. Furthermore outside of marriage and childbearing any acknowledgement female sexuality is something of a social taboo; particularly for women themselves. So much so that two sisters, abused by their own father, are willing to allow their youngest sister to be condemned for their father’s murder because they fear the social stigmata associated with revealing their father’s multiple incestuous rape of not one but three daughters. Adam Whitehead over at the Wertzone comments that Brett’s use of rape is a “blunt instrument of character development”, a sentiment that I can agree with on one level, but one I think that does not wholly account for its consistent presence in the story. In truth I feel that Brett’s use of rape is more a symptom of sexual politics that in my eyes warps female sexuality into a tool to reinforce a patriarchal power structure in ways both overt (such as Inevera’s revealing clothing to show Jardir’s followers what they can’t have so as further solidify his power) and covert (such as in the marginalization of women who bear only daughters).
I don’t say any of this to condemn Brett. Within the confines of the world Brett has created the gender roles and sexual politics make complete sense. What I do struggle with is the level of detail these elements have in relation to their importance to the story that Brett is trying to tell. Particularly when it came to Renna, the sister mentioned above who was first introduced early in The Warded Man and reintroduced as a larger player roughly midway through the Desert Spear, I was perplexed as to what purpose her story had in the greater scheme in the story. Even now when I’m willing to admit that the handling of her presence in The Desert Spear ended up providing one of the more important and interesting narratives, and she is a character that grows in her own right, it is her attraction and devotion to Arlen that seems to be the ultimate point of her presence in the novel. I know it might seem I’m a bit hung up on this aspect of Brett’s writing and honestly these elements don’t necessarily lessen my enjoyment of the story but the certain color my experience with the work.
For all my griping and discomfort I still found The Desert Spear a difficult book to put down. The prose is taught, the action is fierce, and the changes wrought by Arlen’s actions in the previous novel provide and interesting and exciting hinge upon which the plot of The Desert Spear turns. Brett is sparing in revealing new details about the nature of the demons/corelings doling out tidbits about them with the introduction of a new and intelligent corelings that provide some insight into the creatures’ social behavior and allowing for the expansion of the ways wards and demon-charged items can be used. Brett expands upon Krasian culture weaving a world different from the duchy’s of Arlen’s world and providing great insight into the type of culture that would produce a man like Jardir. Rojer, as was the case in The Warded Man, gets a bit stiffed in terms of of detail. Nothing is revealed about the nature of his own demon-charming magic though he does make strides towards a more mature outlook on life. Leesha and Jardir’s meeting gives that section of the novel a fish out of water dynamic and the clash of cultures that occurs there creates for some tense and fascinating reading.
The world Brett has created for the Demon Trilogy feels solid despite the sparse details about its history and land. Perhaps more-so than in any fantasy I’ve read the rules that Brett has used to define his world have produced a society vastly different from our own and one that might be unsettling to those used to moral and social norms of our own modern experience. Regardless of this fact the strength of his prose and the hardscrabble nature of the world and the threat that humanity faces make for truly engaging reading that even at the novel’s conclusion will leaving you hungry for more. While the novel doesn’t come to any sort of major conclusions, the majority of the novel is given over to the maneuvering of various parties for the conclusion on the following book (The Daylight War due in 2012) I still found that the growth of the characters over the course of the novel and small characters arcs that crop up over its course to still be satisfying at the novel’s end. Did I want more? Hell yes. But what is there is engaging enough to leave me sated until the next volume.