Despite my best intentions, I seemed to spend more time adding to my TBR pile last year than actually reading any of the books on it. This was particularly true of series reads, where there were just too many literary commitments to chose from. So, for 2013, I've decided to target those series with upcoming instalments during the first half of the year.
First up is the The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett.
While my tastes in fantasy generally run more towards epic than heroic, everything I'd heard about The Warded Man intrigued me. It almost sounded post-apocalyptic, with its demons rising after night, villagers trapped behind their own wards, and a lost history of fighting back. I was a bit wary of the whole coming-of-age element but, again, I'd read enough reviews to be assured that it was handled quickly and well, with the main characters developing and maturing significantly over the course of the novel.
Once I settled on it for my first series read of the year, I found myself hooked right from the first chapter. Brett's writing style is crisp and efficient, but also elegant in its own way. There's a voice there that pulled me in and invited me to take a seat behind the warded door and listen to a story. More than that, there was a depth of emotion to the telling, surprising me with how quickly I found myself invested in the fate of this new world, and sincerely concerned about the demonic threat presented by the corelings.
It was clearly early on, even without reading the cover blurbs for the rest of the series, that Arlen was destined to be the hero of the tale. Here is a boy who is bold, brave, and defiant to the dangers around him, one who cannot understand why humanity is content to hide away each night, rather than confront the demons. He is still a child, however, innocent and vulnerable to the cruelties of the world. I quite liked the way Brett built up his character, establishing both his motives and his potential for the future.
While I was less clear on how they'd fit into the overall story arc, Leesha and Rojer immediately stood out as characters worthy of a place in the telling. In each case, they're as much defined by the people around them as by themselves, but Brett does a great job of giving all his characters a personality and a backstory, creating a necessary sense of community. There were times where I feared Leesha might prove to be too stubborn or obstinate, falling on the exasperating side of independent, and that Rojer might prove to be too damaged by his past, falling on the sword of self-pity, but their development within this first volume was entirely satisfying.
On the surface, the settings of the tale are largely generic, consisting of medieval type villages, towns, castles, and desert fortresses, but they're detailed enough to take shape in the reader's eye. We get a hint of the political landscape, of class wars within the cities, and of pragmatic racism in the desert. Beneath the surface, however, is where the tale really comes alive, with significant potential for the rest of the series. Arlen's delving into the depths of ancient ruins, raiding the tombs for weapons and wards, was a very nice touch, the elaborate sewer-like pathways for trapping corelings in the desert was a great set-piece, and the tantalizing hint of what might exist within the core itself certainly has me intrigued.
If I were to have one complaint about this first volume, it's that going into the last part of the novel the story really seems to jump in terms of timing and tone. It almost felt as if I were reading two different books. It may not have been so noticeable had the jump come at the halfway mark, but that late in the story it almost felt as if Brett were impatient to move on. Regardless, I liked the new direction he took in the final chapters, resolving some elements of the story, moving others ahead, and setting up some new elements at the same time. It was one of the more exciting, climactic wrap-ups to a story I've read in quite some time, with all the characters contributing to an escalation that felt natural and welcome, as opposed to being forced upon the story. More than that, where so many other reads falter in the finale, it lived up to the expectations of the story before it.
Overall, I was certainly impressed. I can't think of any point where the story lagged, and there's no character or plot element that stands out as being unnecessary or mishandled. The magic of the wards is simple, but effective, and I like the idea of so many being lost or held secret. As for the battle scenes, they are very well done - action-packed, frantic, imaginative, but grounded in plausibility (even when magic is involved). As a self-contained story, this first volume works well, and the final scenes are perfect for teasing the next volume, without negating the end of the first. With an ARC of The Daylight War awaiting, I will definitely be moving onto The Desert Spear next.