Review by C.J. Bunce
It’s a fantasy novella that reads like a classic Louis L’Amour Western, full of legend and lore, a book for readers that enjoy every word by an author who really knows how to pen sweeping, artful prose. And don’t let the fact that it comes at the end of a series stop you from giving it a try. It’s Peter V. Brett’s Barren, part of his Demon Cycle series, just released by Harper Voyager. It’s a rather epic story of the past catching up to the present for Selia, a woman warrior in her late sixties. She’s the leader of a community with its own religion and a dialect that could double for the speech of colonists from the Firefly ‘verse. It’s also a community that has a variety of demon attacks it must fend off each nightfall. And while this warrior wrestles with managing the village problems and her own personal relationships, the attacks are only getting worse.
Brett, known for writing his first fantasy novel on his telephone during commutes on the subway, writes his world of the village of Tibbet’s Brook quite eloquently. Unlike most fiction these days, every sentence is not simply about rushing the reader to the gotcha at story’s end. Brett fully immerses the reader in this unfamiliar place, with struggles that parallel those of our own world in any decade. At times Barren feels as classic and on-point as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, with a bit of the unexpected a la Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. The fear in the story isn’t some uncertain future or neighboring army, but both themes are part of the story–the fear comes from the trust and prejudices of those that surround Selia. The Western feel comes from the relationships of Brett’s characters with an interconnected past, a close-knit group of recently united but competitive chieftains akin to the culture in the World of Warcraft realm. In this regard you could drop the fantastical elements and swap spears for rifles and these characters, and this story would hold up as a L’Amour novel (Selia is a grown-up Echo Sackett from Ride the River).
Told from two stages of Selia’s life, we meet the young woman learning from her mother and father, the tribal leader, and then as the older woman who has taken on her father’s role. She gains and loses her most significant personal relationships along the way with only the support of those who are closest to her. She’s an inspiring, strong heroine lead, respected by many in Tibbet’s Brook, the kind of leader who is first into the battle–she gets some nicely choregraphed action scenes to prove her physical prowess. For the short page count there are a surprising number of good supporting characters. If Brett’s other stories include such fascinating female leads, then this would be a series for fans of the fantasy genre to reach out for.
And you don’t need to have read any past books in the series–Barren is a solid standalone read. Plenty of story is packed into this compact volume, yet it’s finely tuned, editing out anything superfluous so you get a satisfying end-to-end read.
Brett is also known for his 2014 comic book mini-series Red Sonja: Unchained from Dynamite Comics.