In October, Peter V. Brett wrapped one of the most popular fantasy epics running with the release of The Core, the fifth book of the Demon Cycle. On the day the book came out, I’d never read a one of them. But binge-reading SFF is my favorite pastime, especially when it comes to series I’ve come to later than those in the know.
And so, I dove in:
The Warded Man, 482 pages.
(Novella: Brayan’s Gold, 88 pages,)
(Novella: The Great Bazaar, 104 pages.)
The Desert Spear. 674 pages.
The Daylight War, 656 pages.
(Novella: Messenger’s Legacy, 136 pages.)
The Skull Throne. 769 pages.
The Core, 881 pages.
(Novella, forthcoming: Barren, 112 pages)
If your math skills are a little rusty, that’s 3,902 pages. With an average reading speed of 2 pages per minute, that’s nearly 33 hours of nonstop reading, without pausing to sleep, eat, or move.
In other words, a massive undertaking. But Peter V. Brett has created a world worthy of such dedication. (Well, you should definitely take breaks to eat, sleep, and move.)
In this world, demons rule the night. They rise up from the earth as mist as soon as the sun dips below the horizon, to kill any living thing they can find. There is only one defense against the demons: magical wards that can be painted on a building—or a person—will repel the beasts. A single ward does some good, but it is when they are combined, and written into patterns, that a true net of protection is created. Not everyone can master the art of warding, and if the wards are covered or washed away, they lose their power. Humanity is losing its dominance over the world by nightly attrition, driven behind the walls of major cities and small villages dotted across the landscape.
The series starts not at the beginning of this struggle, but at life-changing moments for each of our main characters—those moments when very different paths lay open before them, and they must choose which one they will travel. Leesha, Arlen, Rojer, and Ahmann where fate, or Everam, willed each of them onto a path towards greatness. Leesha could simply marry her sweetheart,; Arlen might stay and help his parents on the farm; Rojer could remain a mere innkeeper; Ahmann, simply a member of the Dal’Sharum, the warrior caste that fights the demons. Instead, each experiences life-alternating events that forever changing the course of their lives, thrusting them headlong into the battle against a seemingly unstoppable foe.
One of the perks of a fantasy binge read is enjoying a prolonged engagement with an imagined world. Reading the books as they are released offers different pleasures, but space between each installment inevitably breaks the connection you’ve formed over however many hundreds of pages. With a year or more between books—time spent reading other books, living life, you name it—it can be that much harder to fall back into that world. Suddenly, the characters are strangers, the setting looks duller than you remember, and the threads of connection have frayed.
But ah, a binge read! A nonstop plunge that weaves a tapestry stronger than mithril. You settle in, and follow along with characters from the first steps of their journey to the last, growing to love, or hate, them with a startling intimacy.
Brett’s expansive world and crowded cast of characters definitely stand up to that sort of prolonged exposure. In fact, this may be the best way to experience this story, which gave me my best binge reading experience ever. Whether you’ve read the whole series already, only polished off a book or two, or haven’t started it at all, I’m here to argue that the Demon Cycle is perfect binge material. Why?
So, so many amazing women
Some fantasy series give us one or two strong women to root for. Brett gives us: Inevera, Leesha Paper, Amanvah, Sikvah, Wonda Cutter, Bruna, Elissa Messenger, Renna Tanner, Silvy Bales, Selia “Barren,” and many more. So, so many.
These women are building empires and duchies, defending homesteads, and battling demons. They strive for more within systems designed to limit their reach. I’d read anything with these women. They aren’t flat characters. They are layered and flawed. They felt real.
We see Inevera, a master of manipulation for the greater good, build a battle plan decades in the making. When things go wrong, she adapts. All the while, her loyalty to, and passion for, Ahmann, her family, and her people runs to her core. And Leesha Paper, equally passionate about her family and people, doing what is right by her principles and those she loves, is an indomitable force all on her own.
Throughout the Demon Cycle, women are shown as leaders, fighters, wives, daughters, sisters, mothers, businesswomen. And because of the books’ sprawling nature, we get to enjoy seeing the characters come into their own from childhood to adulthood—a journey that is particularly effective when compressed into a binge read.
I love the depth Brett has brought to the magic system of this world—and with each book, it only grows more complex, keeping your binge read feeling fresh. We learn about much through following Arlen Bales’ transformation into the Warded Man, but we also see how magic affects and influences a wide strata of Krasian society, the Gatherers, and the demons themselves. In an interesting twist for the genre, the magic system is never fully explained, a choice that only makes it feel that much richer and more nuanced. In this instance, I enjoyed not knowing everything—it leaves room for wonder and possibility. Because, let’s face it, even after nearly 4,000 pages, I’ll greedily, happily read more stories in this world.
The core of the series, no pun intended, is the strength and power of friendship—someformed from childhood, others forged in blood. All of them bring such heart to the world and the story.
Arlen, The Warded Man, tells people everywhere he goes that the power of the Deliverer does not fall to one person, but lives inside everyone. It is the will to defend what it is most important, to keep pushing forward against all odds, and to hold fast, even when those around you might stumble. Friendships form their own warded net against the demons, one not easily broken or erased.
Whenever and however they come about, this series is supported by the relationships its characters carry with them across their lives. Neither distance nor time weakens their bonds. It is refreshing to read a series with so many rich relationships that are void of romance, but full of respect and acceptance.
Family is the other connective tissue running throughout the Demon Cycle, even extending into the world of demons, where the demon queens and the hatchlings’ survival drives their actions below the surface.
There is family by blood, and family by choice, and both are equally powerful. Repeatedly, we see our characters suffering disappointment at the hands of their family—Arlen with his father, Leesha with her mother, Inevera with her children. Yet, for every instance of disappointment, we see triple the supportive love that helps ease the hurt, such as that shared by Leesha and her father or Inevera and her mother.
Family can come by marriage, by the bonds of friendship, or by blood. Protecting our loved ones, raging against wrongs committed against those they hold dear (the death of a family member reverberates across the series, deeply felt even decades later), even fighting to build new families against all odds—these events and actions help shape who the characters become, and define what drives them.
A satisfying saga
This is an epic saga, but though the survival of an entire world hangs in the balance, the storyline never grows so vast that we disconnect. The intimate connections we form with so many characters helps keep us grounded, the stakes personal, the urgency of the quest pressing, but victory yet attainable. Even after thousands of pages, we don’t know everything about this world, and that’s as it should be. There are whole swaths and regions of the world unexplored, character arcs barely touched upon, a history going back three millennia—but the story that matters has been told. All the rest of it is, perhaps, best left to our imaginations.
Reading each installment back-to-back allows you to remain immersed in the story as Brett peels back the layers of the world one-by-one. You meet Sikvah and Amanvah as they marry Rojer, and then hundreds of pages, later Brett goes back in time to show us their foundational friendships and history. The series true genius is the way it simultaneously builds up the ultimate climax while slowing revealing past events that showcase the depths of the characters and the world.
So do yourself a favor: pile high the five books of the Demon Cycle (you might want to use two stacks for purposes of safety), clear your calendar, grab your coziest blanket and a cup of your favorite hot beverage, crack open The Warded Man, and don’t stop until you’ve read them all. You won’t want to anyway.