NOTE THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER FREE FOR PLOT ELEMENTS OF ‘THE CORE’ BUT MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR EARLIER BOOKS IN THE SERIES
The Core is the fifth and final installment in the bestselling Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett and concludes what has definitely become one of my favourite long-form series. Realistic portrayals of conflicted genuine characters, a phenomenally created and executed magic system, and a lot of deep philosophical and spiritual elements combine to create something truly exceptional. I really can’t suggest this series enough, and now that it is complete, you have no excuse to not go pick this series up. You won’t regret it.
For time out of mind, bloodthirsty demons have stalked the night, culling the human race to scattered remnants dependent on half-forgotten magics to protect them. Then two heroes arose—men as close as brothers, yet divided by bitter betrayal. Arlen Bales became known as the Warded Man, tattooed head to toe with powerful magic symbols that enable him to fight demons in hand-to-hand combat—and emerge victorious. Jardir, armed with magically warded weapons, called himself the Deliverer, a figure prophesied to unite humanity and lead them to triumph in Sharak Ka—the final war against demonkind.
But in their efforts to bring the war to the demons, Arlen and Jardir have set something in motion that may prove the end of everything they hold dear—a Swarm. Now the war is at hand and humanity cannot hope to win it unless Arlen and Jardir, with the help of Arlen’s wife, Renna, can bend a captured demon prince to their will and force the devious creature to lead them to the Core, where the Mother of Demons breeds an inexhaustible army.
Trusting their closest confidantes, Leesha, Inevera, Ragen and Elissa, to rally the fractious people of the Free Cities and lead them against the Swarm, Arlen, Renna, and Jardir set out on a desperate quest into the darkest depths of evil—from which none of them expects to return alive.
It can sometimes be difficult, when reviewing books late into a series, to not just rehash all the things you liked about the preceding books which stayed true in later installments. The setting of the series is still one of the better realized post-apocalyptic fantasy worlds I’ve read. The magic system remains fantastic: logical, consistent, original. The characters are still just as realistic and conflicted and distinct as they have been. If you’ve read the previous four books and enjoyed them, all the things you enjoyed about them are still true here.
So absent all of that and not wanting to give plot spoilers, we’re left with the subject of endings in general. With a title like The Core it should be pretty clear what the intentions for the plot of this story are. So what remains is to give my thoughts on how that ending was handled. The tl;dr version of which is ‘Pretty well, I suppose, all things considered’. A few choices were made that I found a interesting in a somewhat ambivalent way that I find myself continuing to think about in the days following finishing the novel. Which I suppose is itself praiseworthy, that I didn’t just put the book down and move on, and it’s stuck with me.
I think of everything, the part I found the most strange was just how much time passes in this book. The series as a whole has been pretty low to the ground on a passage of time front. There aren’t too many large gaps in forward time passage inside each book, just between them. The first book starts in 319 AR and the last book ends in 335 AR which is, granted, 16 years. But book 4 ends with the capture of Alagai Ka and the intention of our protagonists to head to the Core and engage directly with the demon Queen. Given their resolve and general tendency towards action, you’d think perhaps that the last book would take place over a couple days, or maybe a week or two. Instead we have several instances of “weeks later” and if I recall at least one “a month later” and the book itself takes place inside two years, 334 and 335 AR.
On the one hand, this felt like a really weird choice, to slow down the book so much as to include weeks of travel which obliges him to then describe what is happening elsewhere over those weeks as well. And since demons are marauding in stronger numbers and pose a greater threat, and places are falling and being overrun, a LOT can happen out in the world during the weeks later moments and it felt like we must be either missing out on important goings on, or there were just conveniently only important things happening during the windows we went and saw.
On the other hand, am I ever tired of the heroes going to go do the thing that will save the world, while everybody else is besieged on all sides and about to lose and die horribly and basically reduced to stalling when suddenly the heroes do the thing just in the last nick of time and everybody’s saved. The fact that everybody besides Arlen, Jardir, Renna and Shanvah really had no actual idea whether their plan would succeed, whether they’d already failed and everybody else was on their own really added a lot to the development of characters that might have otherwise stayed stagnant while we waited for the heroes to succeed or fail. It was interesting to me how much that choice felt ‘off’ to me while I was reading, but the more time I reflect upon it, the more I think it was a stroke of genius.
Brett bucks more than a few trends. His chosen one(s) aren’t even sure they actually are chosen ones. His protagonists include farm boys who don’t magically become nobles and intellectuals and super articulate the moment their powers manifest. His female characters are often liberated socially, sexually and politically, and they don’t give a crap if the men have an issue with it. There’s a very real possibility throughout that his heroes might actually fail, and that true complete success might not even be possible. He doesn’t drop the progression of the world culturally and politically when the important plot bits hit the fan. And perhaps most importantly, he sets up a situation where the world might be hanging in the balance on the success of the heroes, but if they were to fail, the people around them would keep fighting and hang on.
If I had to condense my entire feelings about this series into one word, I would probably go with “realistic”. Just…everything about it, world design, plot, characters, culture, society, just feels as real as it can get while also being about demons who coalesce out of mist every night. A great ending to a great series with more things to recommend it than I can easily fit into one review while doing it justice. You should very definitely finish this series if you’ve already started. And you should very definitely start it if you haven’t yet. Honest word.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Del Rey via Netgalley
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