The Desert Spear is Peter Brett’s very worthy follow-up to his excellent first novel, The Warded Man. The Desert Spear may not be quite as consistently good as The Warded Man, but it remains a strong book in its own right, more than avoiding the pitfalls of that dreaded second novel curse.
One way Brett avoids the second problem is by focusing at first on a character (Jardir) and setting (Krasia) that we were only briefly introduced to in book one. Similar to what he does with Arlen in The Warded Man, Brett takes us through Jardir’s youth as he rises up the tribal ranks of the desert people to eventually become their leader. Brett makes a good structural decision here by showing us Jardir’s rise via long flashbacks between present day where Jardir is leading his people on an invasion of Arlen’s homeland. Brett gets to have his cake and eat it too by keeping us in tune with an immediate sequel chronologically to The Warded Man while also going back a few decades and introducing us to a whole new group of characters.
Jardir and his best friend Abban are particularly well-drawn characters, each compelling for very different reasons, as is their complex relationship. Jardir’s wife is a bit more one-note — I actually thought she had richer potential when she was first introduced, but we start to see better possibilities for her as a richer character at the very end. The larger culture of the Krasians is as sharply depicted as its leader, and while fantasy fans will find it all somewhat familiar — the stern desert warrior Eastern way of life — the details are precise enough that it really comes alive as a foreign culture. Fair warning: it truly does have a tough-for-us-to-imagine view of the world and so the reader should be prepared for some repugnant action, including rape, though it isn’t gratuitously detailed.
Once we’ve spent a good chunk of the book getting young Jardir caught up to current-day Jardir, we shift focus to the main characters from book one: Arlen (the eponymous Warded Man), Leesha, Rojer, Renna, and others. This section isn’t as gripping or urgent, but maintains a high enjoyment/interest level in other, more personal ways: Rojer’s unrequited love for Leesha, Renna’s nightmarish life with her father, Arlen’s fear of what he is turning into, his revelation of how his actions affect others, etc. Eventually, the two worlds and character groups come together (though not Arlen and Jardir yet) as they must, but the clash is one more of culture than force, at least for now.
The characterization, as mentioned, is a strong point as it was in The Warded Man. Characters, including some minor characters from book one, grow and change, as do their relationships (Brett does a nice job of avoiding the predictable there). And we get some real grey area character types and actions, some quite uncomfortable. I personally like that sense of discomfort.
There are fewer “action” scenes in The Desert Spear, especially once we’re past Jardir’s section, but that doesn’t really feel like a lack in the book; the plotting certainly holds your interest throughout. The pacing was a bit off in the parts dealing with Arlen, I thought — his revisiting of places and events from The Warded Man felt unbalanced and somewhat rushed and perfunctory. I liked what Brett was having him do, but it almost seemed like he was worried about overstepping a page limit and so zipped through it too quickly.
I did miss some of the detail on the demon world that we had in the first book, though we are introduced to a new category of demon here through intermittent chapters (the type of demon was interesting and certainly raises the bar/changes the game quite a bit, but the way it was presented was a bit flat). And we only get a hint of that mix of magic and old science that I so enjoyed in The Warded Man.
Those were minor issues though and it’s also obvious that some of what I missed in this book we’ll return to, probably in more detail, in future ones. The Desert Spear was one of my more anticipated reads this year and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Two books in and this remains one of my favorite series going, leaving me looking as forward to book three as I was to The Desert Spear. Highly recommended.