Barren by Peter V. Brett
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Upon accepting to review this novella, I read the first two books in the Demon Cycle series to try to learn about the setting, the magic system, and frankly to gather my own thoughts about a series that I've seen alternately praised and reviled by readers as stunning but filled with violence, especially sexual violence. I can definitely say that The Painted/Warded Man and Desert Spear are violent books, with ample sexual violence (female and male rape). I also took time to read an AMA on Reddit in which Brett tried to explain his rationale for the sexual violence in his stories and in a way, his point about how common sexual violence is is certainly being made for him at present when one peruses the tweets with #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport hashtags all over Twitter. Sexual assault is an all too common experience in our culture and the will to survive and thrive is one that needs stoking. However, I also think it's a valid point that some readers may want fantasy without this particular horror. This series is definitely not for those people who don't want to see sexual violence in fantasy. For those who might want a taste of the series without the level of violence in some of the earlier books but with a feel for the magical battles against demonic creatures called the corelings, Barren might be a fit, though I'm not sure its the best entry point for these series since it does appear to have, unsurprisingly given its position in the Demon Cycle timeline, spoilers for the series. I'm also not sure it's Brett's finest writing in terms of character development compared to what I've seen.
Barren is the story of Selia Square, a Speaker (Leader) of Tibbet's Brook. Selia is sixty-nine at the book's opening but the magical warding used in battling demons that plague Tibbet's Brook has caused a reversed aging process and she looks much younger than her years. She has taken a much younger woman as a lover (Selia is a lesbian) and she worries that this will give her community the excuse to "stake her" like they have recently done to another woman, who I gather was a central character in the Demon Cycle series. (Staking someone at night in this world seems to imply they will meet a horrible end, though honestly I'm not 100% sure that the character referred to really bit the demon dust.) Even the community's minister, Tender Harral warns Selia about her misguided ways, and when Selia responds that she is who she is, he replies that "We are who we want to be," echoing the offensive real world idea of a "lifestyle choice." Selia, of course, scoffs at his warning. We get to see several relationships that Selia has had thanks to flashbacks to fifty years before, when she was a young woman of nineteen rejecting the idea of marrying an eligible young man her father approves of and who, it seems, becomes a lifelong foe of hers, as a result of this perceived slight. The development of Selia as a gay character was balanced between her sexuality and prowess as a demonfighter/leader in her community, meaning her success as an individual, something I always consider a positive. Selia's various lovers show robust physical affection with her and the physicality was pleasant to read, as well.
Although through the flashbacks we come to see Selia's terrible loss of a lover, and the lasting consequences, to the present day, that followed this tragedy, I can't say that I felt I learned much about many of the other characters in the novella. They were rather thin characterizations, and in some ways I find that quite uncharacteristic of Brett's writing, which, while it may not be quite my fare, is skilled in both world-building and character development according to what I found in the first two novels.
I'd heartily recommend this novella for longtime readers of the Demon Cycle series. It may also satisfy those who are looking for shorter works depicting queer characters working their way into an open lifestyle in a resistant community. Selia's success is the most heartening part of the story for me.
I received a copy of the final book from Harper Voyager in exchange for an honest review.
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