OK, here’s the thing about The Daylight War, Peter Brett’s third book of the DEMON CYCLE, following The Warded Man and The Desert Spear. I really, really want to say, Don’t Read This Book. Honestly. No sarcasm. No humor. That’s my first instinct. Because it’s bad? No. Because it disappoints in comparison to the first two, each of which I’ve given 4.5 stars to? No. No, the reason my first instinct is to say don’t read it is simple — because you’re going to want to read Book Four immediately. And at this point, there is no Book Four. The bastard. Now, if you happen to be reading this review a year or so after The Daylight War came out, and there is an existent Book Four, then ignore what I just said. But until that point, don’t read this book. At least, don’t read this book if you don’t want to read a really good book that continues an excellent series at the same high level but ends on a hell of a cliffhanger that makes that makes you slam the book shut and yell “Breeeeeeeeeetttt” like Kirk yells “Khhaaaaaaaan” in that movie about, well, Kirk and Khan.
I suppose, however, if you don’t mind cliffhangers, if you’re that kind of sick “hit me again, Sir” minded person, if you don’t mind reading a really good book and then twisting painfully, deliciously, sweetly, agonizingly, for a year in the wind, oh so deliciously painfully, mmmmmmmm, wait, where was I? Oh yes, if you don’t mind, then by all means, pick this book up. It’ll hurt at the end, but it’s a good hurt.
I’m not going to say much about the plot so as not to spoil earlier books. The Daylight War moves the major storyline forward: the continuing war between the Krasnians and the northern lands, which is really the lesser war presaging the much more important one, that between demons and humanity. At the center, or really at the poles, are the two Deliverers: Jardir and Arlen, each waging war against the demons in their own fashion while also preparing their lands to go against each other’s. Circling around and between these two great forces are those closest to them: Renna Tanner, Leesha, Rojer, Inevera, Abban, and others. As the story moves ahead toward a grand confrontation, everything begins to escalate. Jardir plots a major push against one of the most important cities, while the demons bring forth more powerful “princes” — “mind demons” to smarten up the heretofore dumb-animal-like demons and increase the effectiveness and destructiveness of their attacks.
Along with focusing on Arlen and Jardir and their attempts to consolidate their positions and learn their burgeoning powers, we watch those around them grow in their own fashion. The novel devotes most of that storyline to Inevera, interrupting the contemporary timeline with flashback chapters that show how she rose to become Jardir’s most powerful wife and advisor. But though she gets the most page time, we also see quite a bit of maturation in each of the others: Roget (newly married to not one but two wives), Renna, Leesha, Jardir’s daughters, and even several of the minor characters.
At 600+ pages, Brett really takes his time for both plotting and characterization and while some might consider it a bit slow, I never felt that way. The book never seemed bloated because everything contributed to either increasing narrative tension or greater depth of characterization (and often both at the same time). It was compelling throughout, whether I was reading battle scenes involving demons or reading tension-filled conversations over tea or, (as was often the case) conversations during relatively graphic “pillow-dancing/Spear-riding” (and yes, that’s what those kids are calling it these days).
One might call this an “adult” book because it is rife with references to and descriptions of sex and body parts, but in my mind, it’s more an adult book because it is filled with adults who act and talk like adults. I’d noted in a review of the prior books that Brett does an excellent job of showing these characters becoming who they are over time, starting with how they are formed by their childhood events and continue to be shaped by them or fight against them as they become adults. Inevera’s story is no exception; her rise is vividly detailed. Even better is how those characters we might have thought were already fully formed, such as Jardir or Arlen, continue to grow and change, for both better and worse. And still better is how these characters actually have adult conversations about these changes — they notice them in themselves, they notice them in each other and, gasp, they talk about them.
Because of this mature portrayal, you find yourself caring deeply about what happens to them. The relationships are fraught with anxiety, fear, love, trust, mistrust, jealousy, passion, anger, pettiness, shame, guilt. In short, they are real — again, adult — relationships, and thus I find them much more moving than usual. The relationship between Arlen and Renna is especially so, and I have to say I found myself with a lump in my throat on several occasions during their scenes, not because of any cheap authorial manipulation but because they felt real to me. It has to be one of the best relationships I’ve come across in a book in some time, and I’m not limiting that to my genre reading.
Beyond the characters, I really like what Brett does in somewhat mirroring this slow growth and maturation and changing with regard to the two cultures presented, as we watch both take on aspects of the other. It’s a fascinating portrayal, one that is drawn out over time and is much more complex and sophisticated than what we usually see when someone’s army wins a battle or two. The worldbuilding, especially of Jardir’s culture, is exemplary, but it is far from static. Brett has created an entire world filled with sharp, vivid details, but rather than present it as a completed painting, he gives it to us as an unfinished work and we get to watch it slowly morph and adapt to new ideas thanks to the contact with the north. The same is true of the north, but to a less vivid extent. This is also nicely played out on a microcosmic level via Rojer’s marriage to two Krasnians. Outside the human world, Brett also opens up the Demon world/culture for more exploration via some demon point-of-view chapters and what is revealed is incredibly interesting, leaving me wanting much more.
Brett’s prose, as always, is precise and fluid and vivid. It draws you in easily and keeps you in, never turning pedestrian or clumsy or repetitive. Pacing mostly works well and I enjoyed the interruptive structure of the flashbacks. The two storylines — what’s happening with Jardir and what’s happening with the northerners — are mostly tied together by character and theme rather than by direct plotting, but that didn’t bother me in the least.
There are a few niggling issues. As mentioned, some might find it a little slow in the first third or so. The pace picks up greatly at the end and so, conversely, some might find the ending a bit rushed or abrupt. I found myself at times wishing for a few slightly different names as their similarities (to each other or to other words) distracted me now and then. Some might wish the two storylines were more narratively connected. And then there is that cliffhanger. Which, by the way, is not far removed from the literal.
But really, these were minor issues. I polished off The Daylight War in two sittings and had I not had 40 essays to grade, probably would have tried to do it in one. This is certainly one of my favorite series in fantasy and Book Three, which if you haven’t figured out I enthusiastically recommend, continues the story at its high, high level. I can only assume Book Four will as well based on these first three. Now I just have to wait for it. “Breeeeeeeeeetttt!”
I’d hazard a guess that a sizable majority of readers become readers in the first place because at one point in time a book swept them away. An aesthetic appreciation for imagery or turn of phrase is all well and good, but most if not all of us hunger for a novel that seizes us by the throat and drags us into another world. Whatever else it may be, The Daylight War is such a novel, compulsively readable. I found myself putting off real life to finish it, and it was a good feeling. A lot of it is down to Peter V. Brett’s deft styling and plotting, keeping his reader hooked without sacrificing artistic integrity. He does it so well that he even manages to keep his reader enthralled despite the fact that — in comparison to his two previous novels — very little actually happens in The Daylight War.
In the aforementioned first two books, Brett introduced readers to his world of fear and faint hope, where humanity cowers behind magical symbols called “wards” to avoid a gruesome death at the claws of demons that rise each night. By the time of The Daylight War’s predecessor, The Desert Spear, two men have arisen to offer humanity hope of deliverance from the otherworldly scourge. These two men, Ahmann Jardir and Arlen Bales, were once friends but have become bitter nemeses — in no small part because they represent very different ideals of leadership. Where Bales is a kind of grass-roots champion, holding staunchly to his simple farming origins and attempting to inspire humanity to take responsibility for its own destiny, Jardir takes the path of the heroic conqueror, seeking to unite humans beneath his banner. It’s clever stuff: Brett shows his readership the pros and cons of each viewpoint, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each man. Bales is self-effacing and morally centered, but his idealism may not be the pragmatic decision in the face of a fast-approaching war. Jardir is a dynamic leader with a firm vision of the future and a plan to enable humanity’s survival, but he is haunted by atrocities committed in the name of the greater good. Much of The Daylight War is concerned with the build-up to the inevitable conflict between the two, but also with the introduction of a new point-of-view character in Jardir’s wife Inevera, a previously enigmatic soothsayer.
The focus given Inevera is, for me, something of a mixed bag. Her perspective on events certainly makes it clear just how at sea all of these characters are, as well as affording Brett a chance to expand his world and complicate some of his system of magic. That said, Inevera’s personality, while interesting and fully realized, is not particularly original or refreshing: what you see — it turns out — is more or less what you get. Inevera has family ties to humanize her and a harsh back-story to justify her cold-blooded decisions, but she remains the more-or-less archetypal “Machiavellian femme fatale.” While much of her back-story is interesting and fun to read, it is yet another retelling of the same years we have seen depicted twice already from the perspectives of the two male protagonists, and may for some readers add up to a lot of page space for not a lot of new (or at least unexpected) information. Even once the story returns to the modern day, Inevera’s perspective often serves to remind readers of something they were probably fairly clear on already: that Inevera is jealous of her husband’s romantic affections and resents the intrusion of the other main female, Leesha Paper.
Indeed, perhaps because Inevera (probably the series’ most overtly sexual character) is the major figure of this installment, much more focus is given in this book to sex, romance, and jealousy — particularly female jealousy. Obviously, the strain between Inevera and Jardir over Leesha’s presence or importance is a major plot point, but we also get two marriages, numerous marital disputes, a sizable focus on how homosexuality works and is regarded in this universe, and seemingly endless love triangles (a sizeable number of which Leesha seems to drop into headfirst, until I wasn’t sure whether to feel sorry for the woman herself or her legion of confused suitors).
This isn’t to say that nothing involving demons happens. There are several substantial revelations on that score, and two major battle sequences, but these points come in more or less at the end of the novel, and the whole sequence of events takes place over only a single month. If I had to accurately title this novel, I would not choose The Daylight War — warring is firmly subordinate to politicking, mostly sexual politicking. This isn’t a bad thing by any means, but readers who may have been led to expect a bit more action from previous installments may find themselves eager for a bit more conflict and a faster pace to the Jardir/Bales rivalry over and above the Leesha/Inevera one or any of the other romantic spats.
On the whole, though, I must say that Brett has crafted an effective and engrossing installment for his DEMON CYCLE, and if events are moving a bit slower here, the book does not feel much the poorer for it. The interpersonal conflicts are fascinating in their own right, and once the action does begin, it is as gripping as ever and builds to a shocking finale that — though perhaps just a bit too rushed to have the emotional impact it should have had — left me gasping for more.
More, Mr. Brett. More.