The Desert Prince by Peter V. Brett

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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Publisher: HarperVoyager

Publish Date: 03 August 2021

Page Count: 656 pages (hardcover)

After years of eyeing up Peter V. Brett’s books in just about every bookshop I visit, I’ve finally decided to make a start on his bibliography with the recent release of The Desert Prince.

While this first instalment in the Nightfall Saga shares the same setting as Brett’s bestselling Demon Cycle series, it takes place 15 years later and has been marketed to readers new to Brett. Given that the original series is five (chunky) books long, I decided that The Desert Prince would be an ideal place to start. Whether or not I was right, I’m not quite sure, but I’ll get into that shortly.

The setting of TDP (and all of Brett’s books, I believe) is a small continent that feels vaguely Arab-inspired and a little Wheel of Time influenced. This world is plagued by demons – elemental creatures that reside in the planet’s core, feeding off the planet’s magic and rising to the surface at night to hunt humans.

Humans have learned to harness the Core’s magic using wards or by absorbing it from the demons they slay. This magic is used for defensive spells, predicting the future and giving warriors superhuman abilities.

TDP follows two main characters, Darin Bales and Olive Paper. Darin is the son of a great hero who ended the demon war 15 years ago. Darin now bears the weight of his father’s reputation, feeling like he constantly disappoints people by not being the fierce warrior they expect. 

Olive is the Princess of Hollow, whose fiercely protective mother is determined to shape her into the perfect ruler. Sick of being kept away from the real world, Olive escapes her nanny during a supervised trip and travels beyond the city’s protective wards, believing that the threat of demon attacks ended along with the war.

But Olive is predictably wrong on that account, and both she and Darin are involved in separate, surprise demon attacks, the return of which is the premise of this new trilogy.

TDP is a difficult book to review. There are some things I really loved about it and some things less so, but I will start with the former.

I absolutely loved Princess Olive. She’s a vividly realised character who brings a freshness to the warrior-in-training fantasy sequence, which can be really satisfying when it’s done right, which Brett has.

Olive was also born intersex and was raised a girl in a society with strict gender roles. As she escapes her mother’s influence and faces new challenges, she begins to explore her gender identity, struggling to understand who she is while not wanting to be confined by society’s binary perception of gender. Given the political events of the story and Olive’s role within them, this personal journey is also pivotal to the overall plot. 

I don’t think I’ve ever come across a character acknowledged as being intersex in fiction, let alone sci-fi or fantasy. That’s pretty strange given that, as a quick Google search reveals, over 1 in 100 people are born with intersex traits. So, apart from being a unique and inspiring character journey, it’s really lovely to see this representation on the page. That said, Olive’s being intersex is explained as an unexpected side effect of magic, which doesn’t do a lot for awareness. 

TDP alternates between Olive and Darin’s (first person) perspectives. Unfortunately, I didn’t find Darin’s story quite so interesting. His primary story arc is about dealing with his insecurities and finding self-worth when he consistently fails to meet the expectations of others. I like that all of the characters in Brett’s story are portrayed as survivors of adversity, but I felt that Darin’s journey is something I’ve read before.

You don’t need to have read Brett’s Demon Cycle series to understand TDP. However, I don’t know that it’s entirely successful as a separate story. There’s a lot of ‘where are they now’ explanations and references that don’t necessarily enrich the plot. There are (obviously) also massive spoilers for the Demon Cycle series, which personally put me off wanting to go back and read it. I think it would have made more sense, or at least have been easier, to write a new series based on entirely new characters or settings, not the children of the previous protagonists. 

In terms of worldbuilding, it falls somewhere between being too much information for veteran readers but not quite fleshed out enough for new ones like me. I was certainly able to follow the story, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I lacked the context that would make the magic system feel more consistent or the demons more intimidating.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book as I really enjoyed Olive’s storyline, but I didn’t find the other characters and story elements quite as memorable. Despite the ending being a little anticlimactic, if book two continues to focus heavily on Olive’s story, I might just be tempted to see what she’s up to.

Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review! 

Trigger warnings: abduction, bullying, cutting/self-harm, drugging, death of family, homophobia

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