Monday, March 25, 2013

The Daylight War by Peter V. Brett

I've been reading Peter V. Brett since not long after his debut novel, The Warded Man, hit the shelves. I've enjoyed his novels and following his career, and recommend the novels often. I've participated in and even managed to be a winner in a contest he ran. But while I really liked both The Warded Man and its follow up, The Desert Spear, I've never been overly comfortable with the way many reviewers instantly put him in the league of the heavy hitters of the genre. I felt that there were a few missteps in The Desert Spear and I could never shake the feeling that I hadn't seen the full depth of Brett's writing. While The Demon Cycle was full of fantastic things that touched the quivering heart of my high school D&D geek, there was something missing. Well friends and neighbors, whatever it was, The Daylight War has it. Brett's writing has leveled up with his newest outing and all of that big league praise he's been receiving since the start has finally found comfortable shoulders to rest upon.

Here's the blurb from the publisher:

On the night of the new moon, the demons rise in force, seeking the deaths of two men both of whom have the potential to become the fabled Deliverer, the man prophesied to reunite the scattered remnants of humanity in a final push to destroy the demon corelings once and for all.

Arlen Bales was once an ordinary man, but now he has become something more—the Warded Man, tattooed with eldritch wards so powerful they make him a match for any demon. Arlen denies he is the Deliverer at every turn, but the more he tries to be one with the common folk, the more fervently they believe. Many would follow him, but Arlen’s path threatens to lead him to a dark place he alone can travel to, and from which there may be no returning.

The only one with hope of keeping Arlen in the world of men, or joining him in his descent into the world of demons, is Renna Tanner, a fierce young woman in danger of losing herself to the power of demon magic.

Ahmann Jardir has forged the warlike desert tribes of Krasia into a demon-killing army and proclaimed himself Shar’Dama Ka, the Deliverer. He carries ancient weapons—a spear and a crown—that give credence to his claim, and already vast swaths of the green lands bow to his control.

But Jardir did not come to power on his own. His rise was engineered by his First Wife, Inevera, a cunning and powerful priestess whose formidable demon bone magic gives her the ability to glimpse the future. Inevera’s motives and past are shrouded in mystery, and even Jardir does not entirely trust her.

Once Arlen and Jardir were as close as brothers. Now they are the bitterest of rivals. As humanity’s enemies rise, the only two men capable of defeating them are divided against each other by the most deadly demons of all—those lurking in the human heart.
As in the last volume, Brett chooses to flesh out a secondary character from the last novel by delving into their back story. This time around we're treated to an unflinching look into the early days of Jardir's wife, the manipulative puppet mistress, Inevera. But Brett takes a different tack with The Daylight War. Jardir's history was so massive that it took away from my enjoyment of The Desert Spear, if only because it kept me away from the cast of characters I'd grown attached to, choosing to focus almost exclusively on a character I knew far too little about. Brett wisely doesn't make the same mistake twice, choosing to spread out the back story with events in the present, allowing readers to keep up with all of their favorite characters while learning more about Inevera. And she is worthy of hundreds of pages in a way that I never felt her husband was.

With Inevera's story spanning almost her entire lifespan the 'main' plot line seems sparse in comparison, at least in the amount of time elapsed. Some readers may even feel that this middle volume of the series suffers from the same sort of drag in the plot that plagued several of the more maligned volumes of Wheel of Time series. I strongly disagree with such notions. Even though much of the page count of the book takes place in the past, it's all important to the tale Brett is spinning. Even if the forward movement of the many pieces Brett has assembled on the board is limited in this middle volume, I never felt like the story dragged along in the least. The muddle in the middle was deftly dodged here.

Even revisiting key events from the previous novels for sometimes the third time didn't slow the pace for me. Understanding the character of Inevera and the changing face of the Krasian culture had a profound effect on my enjoyment of the series. Seeing events I'd already read about from a new perspective adds a layer of understanding and depth to them that one could hardly achieve in the more traditional way.

Much like he showed with his treatment of Jardir's rise to power, Brett quickly proves that even a seeming villain is the hero or heroine of their own story. Inevera is far from a one dimensional power behind the throne that one might be tempted to dismiss her as. Her resourcefulness in her struggles to shepherd the rise of the Deliverer are compelling and give her just as much depth as any of the great manipulators in fantasy fiction. She'd make short work of even the most Machiavellian of schemers. And beyond her formidable magic and cunning political maneuvering, we are shown the strength of her love for family and country and her willingness to go against the antiquated traditions that have held her people in a state of stagnation and weakened them against the war against the demons. The more Brett shows of Inevera, the more the reader is drawn in. She may not be likeable, or even sympathetic, but her motives are understandable and often laudable, no matter what you might think of her methods.

I think the real strength of The Daylight War is the way that Brett handles his female characters. They are competent, engaging, and just a full of flaws as their male counterparts. They aren't window dressing and are relevant to the main plot, not just as romantic interests or foils of the men. Some may take umbrage with the way sex is often used as a weapon by many of the characters, but there is a ring of truth to that depiction that is unmistakable. Almost without exception, the women that populate The Demon Cycle are so far from flat and stereotypical that they often steal the show from the macho types around them. And Brett never bothers to try to avoid criticism about what constitutes a strong female character. He just writes them like he would any other character and in doing so infuses the entirety of  the story with an consistent authenticity that makes the cast spring to life in every single scene.

We see more growth from all of the principle cast as well as most of the significant secondary ones. The only character who seems to suffer from not enough attention is Jardir, and I think that is more due to the fact that his story is so closely tied to Inevera's and she is the breakout star of this volume. Rojer and Leesha continue to shine, while Arlen and Renna's romance develops at a clip. Many readers may not be fond of this pairing and of others in the series, but I think Brett does a fantastic job of selling them all. Even relationships that seem like poor pairings at the onset develop naturally with all of the hiccups and speed bumps of the real world. Leesha's predicament is particularly thorny and Brett's treatment of it touches on many hot button issues for modern readers with a level of blunt frankness that is far from comfortable. Love is a messy business, and Brett is never shy with the mess.

The action is as always frenetic and full of the kind of cinematic moments Brett always delivers in spades. His understanding of a clean fight sequence and inventive use of the world's magic system are on full display here. The stakes are more dire and the characters have come into their varying abilities with a level of competency and power that makes me wonder how much more powerful they can become before they simply are too capable for the threat of the demons to even seem real. But I have faith. Brett hints at far more powerful adversaries to come. With two more volumes before the series' projected end, I shudder to think of the Cthulhu level of demon that must await these almost superhuman heroes.

And the finale, what can I say about it without ruining Brett's maddening surprise? Needless to say that fans of the series will be foaming at the mouth for the tentatively titled, The Skull Throne, after reading the conclusion of the inevitable conflict between the Warded Man and Jardir. Brett has turned in a tale that fires on all cylinders, eclipsing his already stellar accomplishments. Even though it is only March, I feel certain that The Daylight War will top many a genre reader's 'best of' lists when the year finally comes to a close.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't disagree more. The retelling of major events for a third time was simply boring. Arlen became a country bumpkin, Leesha a whore. Deus ex machina describes Rojer's character development perfectly. The Daylight War never actually happens, and the cliffhanger ending was much too proud of its own cliffhangeriness.

    This reader was disappointed.