Barren by Peter V. Brett: 3.5 Star Review
If Little House on the Prairie existed in a grim world of nightly demon attacks, Barren’s Selia Square would be a venerable but beleaguered Laura Ingalls, protecting a rural community against a backdrop of social politics and persecution over her own sexuality.
I received a surprise advanced reader’s copy of Peter V. Brett’s Barren in the mail. I was previously unaware of his work and of the Demon Cycle series this book belongs to. I really like the novella length format, though, and the cover design very much strikes my fancy, so I dove in to see what it’s all about.
Marketing blurbs for Barren indicate this novella is accessible for the Demon Cycle uninitiated. I didn’t find that to be the case, as this book leans heavily on prior world building. Brett expends little word count on detailing the nature of the demons and the social structure of the small, rural setting. The first few chapters felt like an avalanche of character introductions, lots of names and vague affiliations I had no context for, most of whom I couldn’t keep straight even towards the end of the book. The first quarter of the novella seemed almost impenetrable to me as a newbie to the series. However, once Barren hits its first flashback sequence, the story smoothed out and I could grab on to a pretty compelling narrative.
The story follows Selia Square, a town elder (“Speaker”) who must constantly balance small town rivalries and political infighting while combating demon attacks after nightfall. Complicating matters is Selia’s relationship with a much younger militia member under her command, the 20-ish year old Lesa.
Barren’s most interesting character dynamic exists in the relationship between these two women. Selia is in her late 70s. However, a side-effect of killing demons is an absorption of their energies, imbuing aging warriors with supernatural youth, vigor, and desire. (This effect seems to be a recent discovery within the Demon Cycle world, but I was never clear on how or when it was harnessed.) Though she’s acted as Speaker for many decades, Selia looks and performs as a vital woman in her late 30s. Lesa, barely an adult, has been her lover in secret, hiding their relationship from a community with obvious Puritanical-style prejudices. The brazen young woman cares little for scorn or judgment and wants to love her openly. But Selia knows that her position as Speaker is tenuous, and that public reveal of her sexuality could undermine her leadership. With nightly demon attacks growing more concerted and disturbingly deliberate, Selia fears that the people of her community could suffer, violently, should their leadership falter to bickering and innuendo.
And, of course, Selia’s own personal history is marred by a half-century old tragedy which taught her to keep her true nature hidden.
A few flashback sequences build the foundation of Selia’s present day dilemmas. They have a sort of Wizard and Glass quality which I enjoyed. We see our protagonist in her 19th year, helping her mother teach school, learning leadership from her Speaker father, and kissing her best friend Deardra when they think nobody is looking. When a new girl, Anjy, is brought into her family’s household, Selia’s mundane routines give way to exciting, lustful, and eventually catastrophic events that shape her life in profound ways. These flashbacks fill in the backstory of her deep-seated, bad blood relationships with other township leaders, social infections bubbling to the surface fifty years later.
A problem with Barren, though, is that while Selia develops into a multi-layered character over the novella, the other love interests in her life do not. Deardra, Lesa, and especially Anjy are largely two dimensional and serve Selia’s story without seeming to live for themselves. For me, that lack of depth caused a few important scenes to feel devoid of real emotion.
The imbalanced power dynamic between the aged Speaker and the young warrior she both commands and beds is the most interesting relationship in Barren. The emotional impact for Selia is explored — her frustration and regret when she must exert that social dominance in unhealthy ways. But, because we know nothing about Lesa other than she is a passionate lover and excellent fighter, the development of that dynamic over 144 pages isn’t wholly satisfying.
Barren has a few other characteristics that I found a bit irritating. Brett writes his character dialogue with a very specific dialect, with a stilted grammatical structure. It caused me to pause often and reread lines to make sure I understood what was being said. In particular, the characters use the word “ent” constantly, as a blanket replacement for "will not/am not/ain’t”. It’s distracting, but I got used to it. The word “succor” appeared very frequently, even multiple times on a page, and while it’s clearly meaningful in Barren’s vernacular, its overuse felt clumsy.
The aspect of dialogue that bothered me the most, though, was use of the term “square” as Barren’s word for gay/lesbian. The flashback sequences detail how Selia and Deardra call themselves the "Square Girls Club", a secret organization of just two members. Yet, Square is also Selia’s surname, which feels VERY on the nose. I don’t think that surname even comes up until halfway through the book. When it did, it pulled me out of the story, trying to figure out if it was a typo.
All that said, Barren was a quick, pretty entertaining read. I quite liked the complicated Selia. The flashbacks held my interest. I’m still largely clueless about the nature of the demons. Brett just doesn’t spend any of the novella’s limited word count explaining much of what they look like or what their powers are. And the mystical system of Wards is referenced constantly but I gained no understanding of how it worked. I’d guess that previous Demon Cycle novels explore the nature of magic thoroughly, but there’s no context in this novella to create genuine interest in it.
The story ends abruptly, with no denouement, but it ties up all the plot threads and sufficiently completes this character arc for Selia Square. There are hints of greater demon struggles to come, which I imagine will be explored in the series’ next full novel.
I waver between 3 and 3.5 stars. I think a long-time fan of the Demon Cycle series will find much more to enjoy here. That said, it was still a compelling narrative and, after several chapters of complete confusion for me, I was able to appreciate this tale on its own merits.
Did I enjoy it?
I struggled with the first third of the novella. But, by the end, I was pretty caught up in Selia’s tale, even with some quibbles constantly gnawing at me. And it inspired some post-read story and craft contemplation, which is a big plus for me.
Am I the intended audience for this book?
Since this is book 5.5 (?) in a series of novels which I was not previously familiar with, not really. Also, the rustic, pioneer-with-a-fantasy-twist setting isn’t particularly appealing to me.
Would I have picked this book up off a store shelf?
The cover design for Barren would have definitely caught my eye. I like the blue, textured cover and mystical wards around the title treatment. I would have at least plucked it from a bookstore shelf to read the back cover.
Will I keep it on my bookshelf?
I’m unlikely to re-read Barren, so I probably won’t keep it on my shelf. However, I sometimes hold onto books with cool cover design or trade dress for use as inspiration. That might be the case for Barren, at least for awhile.
Would I read more from this author or series?
Since the world setting isn’t really my jam, I don’t feel compelled to dive deeper into the Demon Cycle series. But I’m convinced enough of Peter V. Brett’s storytelling abilities that I’d take another shot at his work outside of this world.