Barren (2018) is a novella-length (just over 130 pages in my ARC version) story that answers some questions left after the conclusion of Peter V. Brett’s DEMON CYCLE series. Specifically, what happened back at Tibbet’s Brook, the small village that was home to Arlen Bales and Renna Tanner, two of the protagonists of the Cycle.
The first point I want to make has more to do with marketing and target audience than the book itself. My accompanying publicity says Barren is a good “entry point” for the series, but I’d respectfully disagree with that assessment and hope the book doesn’t get sold as such, say, on inner covers or blurbs or online descriptions. While Barren certainly succeeds in creating its own small world and interesting characters (some new; some from the series), I’d say knowing the backstory regarding what the demons are, how they attack, what wards are, what it means to be a Messenger/Speaker/Deliverer, and who Arlen and Renna are (and their relationships to those in the village) would greatly enhance the reading experience. Is it essential? No, but being a novella, there isn’t a lot of time to devote to exposition, and though Brett tries his best to throw in some concise bits of explanation (such as how using warded weapons against demons grants one energy and strength even as it also makes one look and feel years younger), my guess is that those new to the world and characters will flounder more than a little in the first quarter to a third of the book.
The story itself moves between two time periods and has several plot strands. The most basic plot — the surface or action story — is simple enough: Tibbet’s Brook is fighting for its survival as demons attack it in greater force than ever, led by demons of higher intelligence and more insidious power than the town has faced before.
This fight is complicated by a second plot strand more focused on politics than action, as the friction between factions in the town threatens to pull them apart at the time they need to be more unified than ever. Further complication comes from the third, more personal story via petty rivalries, jealousy, prejudice, and rocky romantic relationships. As is always the case, but especially so in a small town, the personal can’t be separated from the political. Nor can the past be separated from the present, and so those political and personal relationships are haunted by what occurred decades ago, events that are doled out via a series of flashbacks throughout the book.
Characters enmeshed in this web include:
- Selia: “Speaker” (leader of the Council) of Tibbet’s Brook. Though 69, fighting demons has given Selia the looks and vitality of someone decades younger. Selia is a “Square” girl (homosexual) and currently in a secret relationship with the much younger (under-20) Lesa.
- Jeorje: Selia’s main rival for power, oldest resident of Tibbet’s Brook, fiercely puritanical.
- Raddock: Another of Selia’s opponents, a violent traditionalist, and one nursing a grudge over Selia rejecting his marriage proposal when they were young.
- Jeph Bales: Father of the series’ main protagonist, just coming into his own as a town leader and still a bit uncomfortable with the role.
- Deardra: Raddock’s sister and in a secret relationship with Selia when they were young.
- Anjy: Jeorge’s granddaughter. She and Selia fell in love when they were young.
Selia is the core of this story and far and away the most layered, well-rounded character. One face is the typical sharp-tongued, whip-smart, steel-spined old woman that we see so often as a stock character thanks to her being presented as nothing but that. But we also see Selia as a kick-ass fighter more than holding her own against powerful demons. Between those two poles, we also get an older Selia whose outward confidence belies her recognition of how tenuous her hold on power is; a conflicted, pragmatic Selia who wants her sexuality and her relationship with Lesa to be public but who knows just how risky that would be in a town filled with prejudice against homosexuality; a young Selia roiled by all the emotional angst and turbulence that come with youth in general, magnified by having to hide her true self from all, including those she loves; and a glimpse of a middle-age Selia, resigned to hiding herself, sad, but also finding moments of happiness in that life. It’s a complex, rich, and moving portrait and the highlight of the novella.
Unfortunately, other characters suffer in comparison. Lacking the rich portrayal afforded Selia, they come across as simplified plot points: opponent, danger, spurned lover, lover, etc. We’re told Lesa and Selia are in a serious loving relationship, but I can’t say as I ever felt that to be the case, and Lesa herself is mostly a blank slate beyond playing the “I don’t care who knows I love you!” role. The great gap in their age is barely touched upon, and I would have liked to have seen more attention given to that, seen it explored more fully from both Selia and Lesa’s perspectives. Selia’s lovers in the earlier timeline have the same issue. We barely meet Deardra before she gets shunted aside, so we quickly zip through her changing costumes to appear as casual lover, then jealous lover, then resentful former lover. Selia’s new and supposedly deeper love, Anjy, doesn’t get nearly enough page time to make her come alive, and their far-too-quick relationship — which drives all the events of the book really — never seems real, even given adolescent emotions. In other words, it isn’t built to carry the weight it’s meant to. Having read all of the DEMON CYCLE, I know Brett is more than capable of creating deep characterization (and we see it here with Selia), so I’d mark this up to the constraints of the shortened form, which I think work against Brett here. I don’t know if he needed a full-on novel (in fact, I’d say no), but another 30-40 pages would have allowed for richer characters and therefore more emotional impact and plausible behavior.
Structurally, the split timeline is handled deftly and smoothly, with no jarring transitions and a good bit of heightened tension thanks to when Brett chooses to pull us out of one and into the other. I also like the way in which the past events haunt the current ones, not just for Selia but for everyone, even those on the tangents (thanks to the small-town atmosphere).
The action is fast and vivid with good fight scenes sprinkled throughout nicely balanced by more personal, quieter moments. Barren does, I’d say, start slowly, with lots of introductions of character, relationships, some back information, etc., but really finds its footing and pacing when we move into the first flashback. I think, overall, the early scenes are stronger than the contemporary ones, but that may be my own preference for character-driven, character-focused writing (though there are two strong action scenes in the flashbacks, particularly the last).
The prose is solid. Not a lot of room for lyricism in such an action-filled and plot-heavy novella, so it mostly moves us along quickly, smoothly, and efficiently. Mileage may vary on his slang and dialect usage, such as “ent” for isn’t and “square” for gay (which has some momentarily confusing overlap with a name). And sometimes the tolerance theme is a bit overt or too on the nose, though again, I tend to prefer lighter touches in those areas, so reactions may vary.
Overall it was enjoyable to return to the world of the DEMON CYCLE and catch up on some characters from the series. I just wish we’d had a bit more time to spend in Tibbet’s Brook so we could get to know some of the characters better.
Bill’s done an excellent job of explaining the pros and cons of this DEMON CYCLE novella, and I agree in toto with his assessments: beyond Selia, the character work in Barren is often too broad or too thin; it starts very slowly, but picks up momentum as the flashbacks are incorporated into the present-day storyline; the dialogue is a little too heavy on dialect for my taste and, I thought, relied too much on that negative hillbilly-association in order to drive the point home extra-hard that the residents of Tibbet’s Brook are overwhelmingly uneducated and intolerant of non-conformists.
I have a surface-level familiarity with this series and its world, having read the novellas Brayan’s Gold and The Great Bazaar, so I wasn’t completely in the dark with regard to Corelings, wards, Messengers, and the all-encompassing fear of the dark. I enjoyed quite a lot within Barren, particularly the flashback scenes as young Selia tries to figure out her place in the world. On the other hand, I can’t even imagine how much I missed out on, with respect to character or event significance within the larger DEMON CYCLE, so I absolutely do not recommend that readers begin here. I do recommend checking out some of Brett’s earlier novellas or the first book in the series, The Warded Man, however, as this is a fascinating and enjoyable fantasy series.
I’m here to attest to the truth of Bill’s point that Barren is not, in fact, a particularly satisfactory entry point for the DEMON CYCLE series. (I’ll also attest to the fact that I found the dialect, especially the repeated use of the word “ent” for “ain’t,” annoying.) I’m a complete newbie to the series, but when I unexpectedly received a review copy of this novella, it looked interesting enough for me to spend twenty or thirty researching the series and this world before launching into Barren. My research helped with a basic understanding of demons and wards, but it wasn’t enough to make Barren come alive for me.
Selia is an interesting protagonist, a 69 year old woman whose exposure to demon magic while fighting them has reversed her aging process, giving her the looks and vitality of a woman in her thirties. (One of my unanswered questions as a series newbie was why the reverse aging process has only recently begun for her. Is it just the recently discovered “combat wards” that lead to this effect?)
Selia is also a lesbian or “square,” in this society’s terminology. Since she’s living in a medieval-type society and in a small town, it’s pretty safe to assume that that lifestyle is not going to meet with general public approval. To make matters worse, Selia is in a secret relationship with 20 year old Lesa, which also raises squicky questions of age differences that are only partially addressed by Selia’s recent return to a more youthful appearance.
Other than Selia, most of the characters are fairly one-dimensional, as Bill also noticed. In a series of flashbacks, we learn about Selia’s youthful relationships and how some key events at that time have affected her views and development as a person. Brett spends most of Barren exploring Selia’s personal relationships with three different young women, her struggles against prejudice and small-town politicking and power plays, and the effect of these things on Selia’s life, with the demon-fighting as more of a backdrop. I would have preferred it if the story had put more emphasis on the latter. Still, if I’d had the background of more of the series to add depth and color to the world, I think I would have appreciated Barren more.