Old Enemies, Renewed: Barren by Peter V. Brett

The story of the Warded Man may be over, but there is still more narrative to be mined from the world of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle series. His latest novella, Barren, finds everyone adjusting in the wake of the Warded Man’s deliverance of the ancient combat wards. Nowhere is that struggle seen more clearly than in Tibbet’s Brook, once home to Arlen Bales, the Warded Man, whose members have since begun to adjust to being able to fight back against the demons that appear at their doors every night.

Set during the final act of the last book of the Demon Cycle, The Core, Barren finds the demon princes organizing for one last push against humanity. With their new line of queens about to hatch and start looking for food, the Brook will be tested like they never have before. Leading us through that test is Selia, often called “Barren,” an elderly matriarch of the Brook who has recently rediscovered love, lust, and youth thanks to the infusion of magic she earns each night through fighting the demons. But with the reemergence of such vitality comes danger, as old enemies gain the same benefits and, seeing an opportunity, work to take Selia’s position as leader—and potentially take her life.

(Some spoilers.)

Acting as a sort of denouement to the Demon Cycle, Barren is a novella with a lot of action packed into its slim volume. Brett charts the ways in which magic has changed the face of this world, giving us a taste into what the world may look like when he resumes the story in the next series involving the children of the Demon Cycle (whatever that series may be). But for Barren, his focus is on Selia and her journey from being a young, queer woman in a town that looks down on and despises homosexuality, through discovering and losing love, trying and failing to become a mother, and finally earning a reputation as a pugnacious, hard, and aggressive older woman. If she can’t do anything else, she can at least lead the town, the nickname of “Barren” haunting her as the town whispers behind her back about her childlessness.

Barren tends to jump through space and time a bit, weaving its way through the events of The Core and visiting Selia’s past. In the present day, Selia shares a bed with Lesa, a much younger woman, as her own youth is restored by the feedback magic of demon killing. But while she’s happy to share a bed, she doesn’t allow her younger partner any chance to get closer. That will have to wait, as the demons begin to organize against the Brook in full, and old enemies see it as their chance to take down Selia and grasp at power for themselves.

From there, it’s a cut between the present day and the time when a younger Selia, a girl still, fell for her neighbor, Anjy. In that romance, we see the roots of Selia’s loss—and her bitterness. Selia sees the Brook drive out Anjy, turning on her and Selia, denouncing their relationship. And there, on the road, fleeing from a town that would see her cast out anyway, Anjy loses her life as the hands of a demon. This night shapes the Selia we come to know, and explains her in a way we have never seen before, as well as her current reluctance for love.

While there is some mention of other characters, this novella is all about the Brook. We catch up with many of the initial background characters, such as Jeph Bales and old man Hog, and other familiar faces in the town, each of them finding a new role in this world. Many of the older generations are finding new life as well, just like Selia, though that may not be for the best. There is a running question about how much trust the old guard deserves. They have worked to take power for themselves, and they are now getting a new chance to cling to it—but can they be trusted to learn from their mistakes, or will they end up repeating their past over and over again? Progress is only achieved by working together, though that progress is threatened by those who are greedy and selfish for any modicum of power they can get. While unity and strength in working together—no matter when that unity eventually comes—is a running theme of the Demon Cycle, Brett puts it to the test in this novella.

I found this to be a strong novella and enjoyed Selia’s story, especially how she grows to accept that this new chance at life and love is something to be enjoyed, not something to run from. What I find unfortunate is the death of her love interest in the narrative from when she was a young girl. I understand, and I’m sure Brett’s readers understand, that the world of the Demon Cycle is dangerous, but to see—yet again—the death of a queer character used to motivate the protagonist is uncomfortable, and makes for an exhausting read at times. I understand why it happens, but I hold that there are better options, and I would’ve loved to have seen explored in a story with a queer protagonist, rather than seeing someone we’ve just met killed off to justify the inevitable hardening of Selia’s character that we all know is coming.

Overall, Barren is a success, and if you’ve enjoyed Brett’s previous work, you’re going to enjoy this. Brett continues to add to the mythos of the Demon Cycle, and gives us a chance to see what the future of his world may look like. Progress, both personal and social, is hard fought for in this novella, despite the horrendous actions of the Brook in the past, and I can only hope we see more of this new world, and new social status quo, in future books from Peter V. Brett.

Barren is available from Harper Voyager.

Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.

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