Peter V. Brett's The Daylight War (2013) is the third volume in a projected five volume series, The Demon Cycle. As the middlest of middle volumes, it faces both forwards and backwards: reapprising previous events from a new perspective and building up suitably apocalyptic tensions for the final volumes. At some point there's going to be a big ol' human/demon smackdown. Until then, the forces of Light need to get their house in order, and this volume is about the political (and military) shuffling required.
The book is divided - for summary purposes - into several threads. In the present day, Jardir (the Deliverer of the Krasnians) has invaded the rest of the world, hoping to unite humanity under his banner before fighting the corelings. Arlen (the Deliverer of Cutter's Hollow) disagrees. With Renna, his girlfriend-stroke-mini-Deliverer-ninja-sidekick in tow, he stands up to Jardir. The world isn't big enough for two Deliverers, and the two need to settle one of epic fantasy's largest dick-measuring contests.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Leesha has stepped up from 'assistant village healer' to 'powerful witch queen'. Once the object of Arlen's attraction, she's now caught Jardir's eye, and their... romance... has political and mystical repercussions. And, speaking of powerful witch queens, Jardir's existing wife, Inevera, isn't delighted about this turn of events. Inevera also features in a series of flashbacks that help flesh out the story of Jardir's rise to power and the Krasnian invasion.
Before I go further, it is worth noting that I reviewed The Daylight War last year, and this will cover much of the same ground: it is a very entertaining book (for a certain definition of entertainment) that has a lot of serious problems. It is also very, very difficult to talk about this book without spoilers. You've been warned.
Why this book kicks ass.
Oh, and it does. This whole series has a popcorn-addictive hyper-realistic moreishness that's unquestionably seductive. Viewed through the lens of cinematic pulp fiction, it is hard to find anything more relentlessly crowd-pleasing (to a certain definition of crowd). The Daylight War is an unending succession of magical 'splosions, bared breasts, macho combat and bloody combat. Everything is continually dialled up to eleven - why have sex when you can have a THREESOME? Why have a sexxxay wife when you can have a harem?! Why kill a demon with a spear when you can kill it with your bare hands?! Why have one magical messiah when you can have TWO? And then make them FIGHT? ON A CLIFF?!
Nor does The Daylight War neglect the more, um, comparatively, 'intellectual' forms of fantasy fan-service: I'm a sucker for a bit of logistical planning in a fantasy setting and I'll swoon for well-crafted political manipulation. This provides both. The series also boasts one of epic fantasy's best contemporary magic systems and The Daylight War continues to build on that strength with new innovations.
Everything is dialled up to eleven, heavily stylised and, as a piece, amazing to behold. Not unlike a Zach Snyder film - there's an unrestrained passion there, that, whether or not it is to one's personal taste, is certainly admirable in its enthusiasm.
Setting aside the splodeyboomboobfest, I think there's also something very intriguing about the central premise of The Daylight War: the world can't hold multiple Chosen Ones. Traditional fantasy epics are constructed around a binary Prophecy system: one believes in the stableboy or one doesn't. That flies in the face of human nature - which is to say that, as long as there's a Chosen One prophecy 'out there', people will raise their hands to fulfil it. The Daylight War's complexity is weakened by taking a fairly objective position that Arlen is the Right choice, but that doesn't make Jardir's stance any less compelling. As far as Jardir is concerned, he is the Messiah. Meanwhile, Inevera's point of view follows her progression from blind belief to disbelief to outright manipulation as she tries to 'bend' predestination.
Why this book needs its ass kicked.
Relentlessly more-ish entertainment only gets you so far, and this book has some problems. I tackled these at length last February, so I'll try to keep the recap brief:
- This is a book about macho manly-man men and the women who do their laundry. Inevera does well from a page count point of view (and hell, she's even on the cover!), but her entire raison d'etre is to become the Bride of the Deliverer. This is, again, the woman who, given one wish, has her virginity restored as to please her future husband.
- Leesha and Renna are no different: they are sidekicks and objects, 'vital' to the plot because of who wants them or whose baby they carry. While Jardir and Arlen have motivations like "rule the world" and "become the Deliverer" (hell, even the bard, Rojen, has dreams), the women around them have subsumed objectives: they support the men.
- As nice as it is to see a non-pseudo-Medieval-European analogue in fantasy, the Krasnians are still incredibly troubling. Having the Middle Eastern analogue launch a jihad against the idyllic West to enslave the men and shag the women doesn't improve things.
- So much sexytimes. As nice as it is that it is all consensual, it hits Cinemax levels of ridiculous - like the characters are all being 'rewarded' for surviving the sexual violence of the first two books. Rojen is romping around in threesomes. Leesha is finding her inner kitten. Renna can't be bothered with clothing. And, of course, Inevera has chapters of special concubine training (which is, I should say, meaningless - despite all of her work learning beguiling woman-tricks, it all accounts for nothing when Jardir starts layin' pipe, yo. He plows that superiority right out of her. Amiright? Amiright? Punch it in, bro.)
- The cliffhanger ending is silly. Apparently enough people were traumatised by it that Voyager have put up the first chapter of the fourth book, but, psst - magical healing undermines dramatic tension.
- Although the duelling Deliverer thing is interesting, it is also incredibly silly. Both Arlen and Jardir are defined by their desire to save humanity, which makes their war (and duel) more than a little illogical. (Arguably we can blame Inevera and her 'bending', because, you know, scheming wimmen, amiright?) Again, the first chapter of the fourth book, well - it makes the entire third book a bit meaningless, doesn't it?
- THE ACCENTS. It is actually hilarious how unpopular Arlen and Renna's pidgin English is - hell, it even gets flak on Reddit. But it is hard to take Arlen seriously when he sounds like a DVD extra on Tucker and Dale vs Evil. Going back to the problematic analogues above, it doesn't make it any better to have the raging hordes of Islam set up against Arlen and his small town god-fearin' Cutter's Hollow folk (craftsmen, churchgoers and salt of the earth, dernit).
So how does it fit with the David Gemmell Legend Award?
Well, let's run through the checklist:
'Spirit of Gemmell' criteria:
- Secondary world: Yup
- Traditional: Yup.
- Heroic: Yup. I think this book actually has a very strong moral compass. In fact, its strength is in demonstrating how different people - Arlen, Jardir - with the same overall sense of Good and Evil can come into conflict. (And how others, such as Inevera, who have fewer moral sensibilities, factor into the mix.)
- Epic: Good lord, yes.
- High fantasy: Exceptional magic system that is integral to the setting, politics, characters and overall atmosphere.
- Entertaining: Yes. I can see how it isn't to everyone's taste. Hell, it isn't really to mine - but it still held my attention and interest.
- Innovative: A bit, sure. I think the multiple Messiah idea is an interesting premise. Even if it is illogically executed, Brett's decision to focus on it is unusual. And Inevera's 'femme fatale' POV is an uncommon twist. Daylight War tells a familiar story, but with some reasonably meaningful departures.
- Reactionary: Yes. Extremely. I think the Krasnians are deeply problematic and the role of women borders on the appalling. And poor Inevera sits squarely in both camps.
That leaves us in a strange place. On one hand, The Daylight War superficially ticks all the boxes: it's a page-turning, crowd-pleasing epic that tackles traditional tropes from a slightly new angle. On the other, I think this book is deeply disturbing - it reflects the status quo of epic fantasy in all its unholy, unchallenged glory. The Daylight War gets a lot wrong, and the perplexing thing is that those failures don't really make a difference to its core entertainment value. So why do they exist? Call me an optimist, but I genuinely believe that fantasy readers don't require rampaging Muslim hordes or a harem of subservient sex-witches to enjoy a book. So can't we drop all that shit already?