Fury of a Demon by Brian Naslund
I admitted back when I reviewed Brian Naslund’s Blood of an Exile that I had resisted the book sitting on my shelf and picked it up somewhat grudgingly, expecting yet “another fantasy about a roguish-yet-likable gritty swordsman and his band of gritty companions battling the odds to save their gritty world.” Which, as I noted then, wasn’t so far off in terms of plot, but which in more important ways didn’t come near being accurate, thanks to Naslund’s sharply executed characterization and world-building, an ecological theme that added appreciated depth, and a wonderfully cheeky style, traits that all continued on into the sequel Sorcery of a Queen. Now Naslund is back with the concluding book in the trilogy, Fury of a Demon (2021), and if this follow-up falls just a little short of its predecessors, it’s still an engaging, entertaining, and often funny novel that does a nice job of resolving the DRAGONS OF TERRA story.
I’ll let you read my earlier reviews for a semi-detailed plot summary. Suffice to say here that the main protagonists (Bershard, Ashlyn, Vera, Jolan, Felgor, and others) have their backs against the wall (really, the jungle tree) in their desperate war against Osyrus Ward, who seeks a “better world” in the usual way all mad-scientist-world-dominating-single-minded-win-at-any-cost villains do. The war has not been going well, with Ward having the resources, the technology, the numbers, etc., leaving the plucky rebel force holed up in the Dainwood jungle, which luckily for them has some essential resources Ward needs, which is why he hasn’t used his airships to just carpet bomb the hell out of his annoyingly persistent opponents. Instead, he drops in hordes of soldiers, accompanied by his nearly unstoppable super-soldiers, crafted out of a horrific mix of magic, alchemy, and chemistry. Fortunately, the “Flawless Bershard” is nigh on unkillable himself, though he has the pesky little problem that the more he uses his power the closer he gets to turning into a tree (it makes sense in the storyline, trust me).
As with the other two books, there is a lot to like here. The banter is fantastic: vulgar, yes, but also often quite funny, and it also feels like real conversations between friends, lovers, soldiers in arms, as opposed to carefully crafted authorial lines. Somewhat contradictorily, a winking self-awareness runs lightly throughout Fury of a Demon, as when Naslund allows someone besides the Bitingly Sarcastic Comic Relief Character some cynical humor and the characters banter about the banter:
“You’re gonna turn sour on me, too? …
“Hey, if you get to be all sarcastic during tense conversations, so do I.”
As noted above, the storyline is deepened by the ecological theme that runs throughout the series. One of the benefits of the setting’s shift to the jungle is we get to see not just a different, more natural environment (one which comes vividly alive), but we also get to see the dragons and other creatures in a fully integrated ecosystem. Characters (the good ones) accept the reality of the dragons as part of this natural world, as part of a necessary ecosystem, even if a dangerous part, while Ward sees them as a mere resource (think the days of hard-core whaling). One of my favorite subtleties was how the dragons, without any intention on their part but merely by their presence in their home, protect the people by preventing Ward’s airships from flying right in, which makes for a nice metaphor for how we are protected or just alive because of a connected ecosystem. Bees, for instance, don’t think to themselves that they better go out and pollinate so those stomp-footed humans can eat, but woe to us if the bees suddenly up and disappear.
Some other themes include the horror of war and its impact, the way it both changes one in the moment, over time, and then continues to haunt, and the unjust nature of a hierarchical society. Or as one character, who could easily have been written off as a run-of-the-mill petty villain, tells another:
You think I wanted to be the asshole hoarding pigs and selling of black sticky … that I dreamed of this life when I was a little boy? No… But when the lords and wardens of this fucked up realm took all the other options for themselves, I did what needed doing to stay alive … Said I’d change around when things got better. But …life never gets better. The desperation… It never goes away for people like us.
Characters remain strongly constructed, though I’ll say more on that later. The prose style is vivid, smart, and sharp. With the addition of the jungle, and a visit to a few other spots, the worldbuilding continues to expand. And the humorous moments and exciting fight scenes are nicely balanced by more emotionally moving scenes, particularly when Jolan is the focus.
As I said in my intro, while still wholly enjoyable, Fury of a Demon was a bit weaker than the first two books in my estimation. Pacing was more of an issue, and I confess I could have done with shorter fight scenes, especially of the “he’s impossible to kill!” type, which is a description that could be leveled at multiple characters. The plot also was more episodic, felt less unified or focused than the others. And while I enjoyed all the time I spent with these characters, and by now we’ve gotten to know them pretty well, the characterization didn’t seem quite as sharply realized as in the earlier books. That said, the drop-off is minimal, and I confess to being sorry to see the last (if we have) of this world and these characters. But I do look forward to whatever next project Naslund sends our way.