Review of the Demon Cycle Series: When Ideology Ruins a Good Story

A world once modern and learned condemned to repeat the dark ages after demons rise from the earth's core every night to feast on humans.

Peter V. Brett starts off the Demon Cycle series in a single small town and grows to world-size proportions. Frankly, it's a master class in high fantasy world-building. It's never explicitly said in the books, but I think the Demon Cycle series takes place in our own distant future—after all our technology failed us in the face of demons. It's that subtlety of world building and the intricacy of plot that makes the Demon Cycle books so outstanding... at least the first three.

Because I love this world and these characters so much, I became truly angry with the direction the series took and my perception of why the author made these choices. As with all my reviews, there will be spoilers, but nothing that should prevent you from reading these books. Your life will be better for it, even with its flaws.

The Warded Man: The Warded Man tells the story of Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer and how their lives end up intersecting. We meet Arlen and Leesha when they are only eleven and Rojer when he is only four. They live in a world ravaged by demons every night with humans being forced to live behind protective wards or die terrible deaths at the hands of these demons. Like all good fantasy epics, each of the characters is driven out of their normal lives by tragedy and they rise to greatness over a series of years. There is not a single thing in this book I would change or did not like.

The Desert Spear: Book 2 focuses initially on a character who served as a short-lived villain in book 1. Ahmann Jardir has set himself up as the fabled Deliverer, in direct opposition to Arlen, who is hailed as the deliverer in the west, or the "Greenlands" as they're called here. Brett has tapped into medieval Islamic warrior culture superbly with his creation of Krasian culture, basically Arabian Muslims with a strong Spartan bent. Jardir is ruthless and vainglorious, yet honorable to the core and likeable. He is the perfect foil for Arlen Bales, aka the Warded Man, who epitomizes western values while Jardir is a pure son of Mecca, even though Brett dances around it.

It's a long book that examines the characters, the world, and all the political intrigue therein, both East and West. I loved it.

The Daylight War:  Book 3 was also unambiguously good, though it did hold warnings for some of the problems that were coming. For one, he started off retelling events that had already occurred in the first two books, this time from the POV of Inevera, Jardir's wife. She is a nasty piece of work from start to finish and I bristled at Brett's attempts to make her awful behavior and general scheming into a virtue by way of ret-conning certain aspects of the plot. It was as if Brett decided Leesha wasn't enough as our heroine, he needed another female protagonist. So he decided to try and convince us in the third book that Inevera was not a craven, power-hungry bitch using her beauty to manipulate everyone. She's actually a strong confident woman. I didn't buy it and it felt manipulative.

The Skull Throne: This is where we start to go off the rails. Not only did it start to feel like a soap opera (An aging beauty sleeps with her in-the-bloom-of-her-youth daughter’s ex-betrothed, the Beautiful Daughter falls for two men who were once like brothers, but who are now archenemies, becoming pregnant by one, but refusing to marry him and then concealing the child's parentage by seducing yet another man), it also had more of the character retconning we saw in book three. Reframing Leesha's father as a sexual submissive and voyeur instead of a longsuffering and loyal husband to a bullying promiscuous wife was absolutely unforgivable and there was no good reason for it.

Most damningly, Arlen and Jardir are basically absent from this book.

The Core: Why oh why did this book ever exist? We had so many new POV characters who nobody cared about and brought nothing to the story, we saw so many dangling plot points that seemed inserted only to comment on our current political battles and, again, the two characters we were all reading to head about—Arlen and Jardir—are present, but inconsequential. All of this is capped off by a nonsensical Pollyanna ending that made me wish I had read 50 Shades of Grey instead.

Identity Politics and Equity Run Amok

My impression is that somewhere around Book 3, Brett got bitten by the political bug, specifically the egalitarian Left that says men are bad, none more so than white men. I can think of no other explanation for sidelining his own main characters. We started off with two competing Deliverers, each from a very different culture, both with equally impressive powers and equally loyal followers. The logical conclusion was that they would fight. And one would be the victor. Instead, they were sidelined and sent into the core of the earth, leaving all the planning and important things to Leesha and Inevera (and the aforementioned list of nobodies). The message was that there is no deliverer. We are all our own deliverer. Which is fine... unless you've seen The Incredibles. "When everyone is special, then no one is."

His gender ideology also got a lot more pronounced. The Krasians live in a theocracy, yet they are oddly accepting of homosexuals. Given the Spartan elements of their culture, this wasn't totally unreasonable. However, when you start inserting gay and lesbian characters for no reason other than to have representation, it becomes obvious and irritating. Likewise, inserting a hermaphrodite child for literally no reason is also irritating. Being Intersex is such a rare condition. Why make Leesha and Jardir's child that way? ... Yeah, I don't know either.

Ultimately, the last two books were a weird combination of being too much while at the same time not enough. So many characters, so much going on. Yet no delivering on the promise of these two main characters, of the outcome of their earth-shattering conflict and overthrowing the seemingly infallible demons. It seemed like a cop-out of extraordinary proportions, especially given how perfectly he'd set up the world, only to knock it down in the last act.