I’m really enjoying these little novellas that Sub Press puts out. Because they’re meant as stand-alone side-stories, they’re a great way for me to get a feel for an author’s world and writing style before jumping into a big series.
Peter V. Brett’s Brayan’s Gold is the story of how Arlen, one of the main characters in Brett’s Demon Cycle, goes on his first solo job and meets a snow demon. The episode is referred to in the story collection The Great Bazaar, but hadn’t been written until Brett’s friend asked him about the story. So, here it is.
Even though I haven’t read Brett’s The Warded Man or its sequel The Desert Spear, I had no trouble jumping right into this fascinating world where demons rise up from the Earth when the sun goes down. Rock demons, wind demons, flame demons and others terrorize humans and kill those who are not under wards. Nobody’s ever met a snow demon and lived to tell, so Arlen isn’t sure if they really exist until he comes across one while he’s unprotected.
Since this is a prequel of sorts, it’s not a spoiler to say that Arlen survives; watching him plan, bargain, and fight is the fun part. I liked Arlen immediately — he’s “got stones like a rock demon” — and I liked Brett’s world. I’m ready to spend some more time with Arlen and his friends as they battle the demons (I already have The Warded Man and The Desert Spear in my Audible Library).
Brayan’s Gold is a short novel — only 88 pages, but it’s the perfect appetizer. I recommend Brayan’s Gold to fans of Peter V. Brett, and to readers, like me, who want to taste his world before putting a whole helping on their plate. I think I’ll be going back for seconds or thirds on this one!
Since I’m unfamiliar with the works of Peter V. Brett, The Great Bazaar & Brayan’s Gold seemed like a smart place for me to start. The two novellas of the title, along with some “deleted scenes” and a Ward Grimoire, gave me a very clear view of Brett’s style and a glimpse of the greater universe of the DEMON CYCLE series. While I was fascinated by the rune-warding system and the varieties of demons, the action scenes were clunky, and some of the world-building elements were disappointing.
“Brayan’s Gold,” the first novella, takes place when Arlen of Tibbet’s Brook is sixteen years old and still an apprentice Messenger. (Messengers are entrusted with the secure transport of goods or letters between settlements.) He’s got a brand-new suit of armor which he’s covered in defensive wards to protect him from the hordes of murderous demons which rise up out of the ground every night, and his latest assignment is to help Curk, a senior Messenger, take a cart full of “thundersticks” from the city of Miln to Brayan’s Gold, a remote mining town high up in the mountains. Thundersticks are explosive, highly dangerous, and very valuable. If everything went as planned, this wouldn’t be a terribly interesting story, would it?
Brett provides details about Arlen’s profession and daily life in a smooth, economical way, establishing characters and setting without derailing the story. One such detail that caught my eye was the mention of synchronized clocks placed in Free Cities; timekeeping is a small thing, but a necessary one, and often ignored in fantasy novels. Additionally, warding allows for all kinds of technological advances while still maintaining a medieval Europe-style society, which I thought was very clever. Mountain homes would need to be habitable, so why not absorb energy from demon attacks and redirect it into hot water or heated air?
The majority of Arlen’s journey is engaging and well-written, but as I wrote above, the scenes in which he does battle are not as well-crafted — especially in the second novella, “The Great Bazaar.” They’re straightforward to the point of repetition, relying on a “this happened, but then this happened” structure which occurs as often as once per paragraph. Arlen attacks, but a demon deflects it. A demon attacks, but Arlen dodges. I understand that action can be difficult to portray in a written medium, but variation of style and word usage are key to keeping the reader absorbed in the narrative. As a result, I found myself skimming through these scenes and focusing more on the dialogue and travel.
“The Great Bazaar” is set in the Krasian Desert, four years later. Arlen is on the hunt for valuable pottery in an abandoned hamlet, Baha kad’Everam, on the advice of a friend who is far more clever and devious than his behavior indicates. Abban, a merchant, is definitely playing a long con, and uses Arlen to settle a sore point of contention. In the end, however, after reading this novella and checking some details against Bill’s FanLit review of The Warded Man (titled The Painted Man in the UK), it seems that Arlen got the better end of the deal.
In this novella, we see some of the breadth of demon types, with different classifications and habits which are unique to each type. In the mountains, there were rock and snow demons; in the desert, there are sand and clay demons. Also, Brett stretches beyond the expected elemental types of magic, and gives each demon an interesting appearance. He’s clearly given a lot of thought to how geography and climate would influence demon physiology, and the evidence of that hard work enriches the reading experience.
Unfortunately, Krasian society is not so creative or inventive. They’re a desert-dwelling people who restrict their women’s daily lives and force them to wear head-to-toe black robes. Men are allowed to be warriors, priests, or merchants. Alcoholic drinks are forbidden, but imbibed anyhow, and pork is only eaten by unclean people. If a man is killed or shamed out of the community, his wives can expect to be raped and then sold as slaves. Arlen himself doesn’t approve of this, which is good to know, but why do so many fantasy writers seem to insist that life among the dunes automatically means misogyny and exotic barbarism? It’s disappointing and tiresome to see this trope, especially because it’s unnecessary.
The deleted scenes are “Arlen” and “Brianne Beaten.” The first story, “Arlen,” was the original germination point for the DEMON CYCLE series in Brett’s mind, and was written for a class Brett took in 1999. He writes in an introduction that he had intended for it to be the prologue to The Warded Man, but his editor persuaded him to cut it. I enjoyed reading about this mischievous little scamp, always pushing the boundaries of how late he could stay out or how far he could travel from home without being caught by demons. Again, it’s a good set-up for the world, the history of the demon attacks, and the circumstances which led to universal use of protective wards.
“Brianne Beaten” was cut from a chapter of The Warded Man because Brett felt that it wasn’t strictly needed to progress either the story or Leesha’s character development. Leesha is an “Herb Gatherer,” and seems to be in the process of outgrowing her small town. Her friend, Brianne, is married to a man who abuses her, and Leesha intervenes. Without any context for this character or her history, I couldn’t tell you whether it’s a good thing that this part was cut or not, but it was an interesting series of scenes.
Also included are a Krasian Dictionary and a Ward Grimoire. The dictionary seems superfluous, as any foreign terms were recognizable from context within dialogue or description. On the other hand, the Ward Grimoire is very useful. Not only does it provide a history of ward usage and the delineations of those wards — usefulness against which demons and whether it’s intended for offense or defense — but each ward’s entry is accompanied by a picture of the ward and a detailed description of the affected demon’s habitat and appearance. I was particularly glad that this was included because it’s further evidence of the care and thought which Brett has invested in these books.
The Great Bazaar & Brayan’s Gold is a good introduction to Brett’s style for new readers, as well as the larger world of his DEMON CYCLE series. Readers who are already familiar with that series should also enjoy the extra glimpses into the life of Arlen as he battles demons and wanders the world. I’m intrigued enough to add The Warded Man to my to-be-read list, but not enough so that it’s going to zoom straight to the top.