The Desert Prince by Peter V. Brett
The Desert Prince is the newest installment in Peter V. Brett’s fantasy universe where humans have been battling demons for ages. The prior series (THE DEMON CYCLE) ended mostly in seeming victory for the good guys (the humans), but as is often the case in these sorts of stories, victory only lasts until the next trilogy. This new series picks up about fifteen years later, and while some characters return from the prior series, the focus here is on their children as they battle with an old demonic evil risen anew, humans who can be just as monstrous, the strictures of a too-rigid society, and their own inner conflicts.
The two first-person POV protagonists are Olive Jardir and Darin Bales, children respectively of Ahman Jardir and Arlen Bales (“The Deliverer”), the two larger-than life protectors of humanity from the first series. Olive has been raised by her powerful mother, the Duchess of Hollow County, who refused to be just one of Ahman’s many wives back in New Krasia where he currently rules. Since Arlen sacrificed himself in the war against the Demons, Darin also has been raised by his mother, the equally powerful Renna Bales.
Both Darin and Olive have their issues. As Darin puts it:
everyone says my da saved the world … Sometimes I catch them staring, like they’re expecting me to do something amazing. And when I don’t, I can smell their disappointment.
It’s not that Darin isn’t special in his own way; he has several powers, including being unnaturally fast and being able to shift the form/density of his body structure. But still, he finds his father’s legacy an onerous burden.
Olive, meanwhile, perhaps because of her mother’s use of magic while pregnant, is intersex, though to protect her from the dangerous repercussions of being male, her mother has kept that a secret and raised her female, hiding her unnatural strength. Much of her POV (and therefore much of the novel as she gets the lion’s share of page time) involves her struggle against having her identify foist upon her by others, especially when she finds herself in a foreign land against her will. Beset by cruelty and violence, by both demons and humans, she battles to find her place and her selfhood while Darin also tries to find his place in the world even as he, with some family members, tries to find/rescue Olive. All while demons once more threaten humanity.
With its two teen protagonists (other major characters also skew young). The Desert Prince is a typical coming-of-age story in many ways, for good and for ill. The largest positive is Olive’s character depth, which is full and rich thanks to the time we spend with her and the many changing situations she faces. She has always been betwixt and between, and even as she thinks she’s found a clear path, the ground shifts underfoot. Nor is she helped by all the secrets people have kept from her. The exploration of her personal identity also allows for examination of social norms and strictures (usually not in a good light).
Darin’s situation is equally fascinating, bearing the burden of two revered parents, one nearly worshiped as a god and conveniently not around anymore so as to be brought down to earth by day to day living. His storyline is so equally compelling that I thought it a misfortune how imbalanced the two narratives were, which led to two issues for me: one was that Olive’s felt repetitive at times and overlong, while Darin’s section felt like his character was given short shrift.
Another issue that felt related to the younger characters was all the focus on who was kissing whom and who wanted to kiss whom and who saw someone kissing whom and, well, you get the idea. Was all this realistic for youthful characters? Yes. But that didn’t lessen how wearisome it eventually got; after all, there’s a reason authors are selective about “realistic” detail — not everything is equally compelling or deserves frequent mention. The same held true for some of the other teen angst.
Meanwhile, the fight scenes, though individually exciting and vividly presented, felt a bit repetitive as well. And still on the subject of fighting, while Olive’s training had some good moments, I’ve never been much of a fan of the “we’re in such desperate need for fighters that we’ll train our fighter so brutally that we’ll destroy a bunch of them, so we have fewer fighters” trope.
On their own, none of these issues are anywhere near dealbreakers. The book does feel overlong, and as noted various aspects begin to become repetitive, but in isolation The Desert Prince is an enjoyable fantasy, with an interesting setting and conflict, some deep characterization, several moving moments, and good fight scenes.
But it doesn’t arrive in isolation but as a follow-up to an already completed, and excellent, series, and so as I read it, and once I finished it, the one question I couldn’t quite find an answer for was “it’s not a bad book, but is it a necessary one?” The isolated fights against small numbers of corbeling demons, the mass battles against larger numbers, the brutal training, the heightened concern over a “smart” demon, the worry over humans getting power-drunk and dangerous due to the “feedback” aspect of wounding/killing demons, etc. We’ve seen it all before, and in wonderful fashion.
Yes, Olive’s intersex nature and Darin’s legacy burden bring something different to the story, but I couldn’t help but think the new stories would have been better served by an equally fresh setting/universe. That said, my guess is that if someone hasn’t read the original series, and enough is made clear here that this isn’t essential (though clearly useful), one might have a more positive reaction. Not having that luxury myself, I have to admit The Desert Prince left me feeling somewhat disappointed, despite my enjoyment of large segments.