Barren: A Demon Cycle Novella. By Peter V. Brett. Harper Voyager. $14.99.
Tales of an 8-Bit Kitten #1: Lost in the Nether. By “Cube Kid” (Erik Gunnar Taylor). Illustrated by Vladimir “ZloyXP” Subbotin. Andrews McMeel. $9.99.
The whole point of immersion in a fantasy world is to visit some other reality for a time and live vicariously through that world’s characters for a while, sharing their thoughts, feelings, adventures, triumphs and failures. The point of when to enter the world is therefore crucial. Series authors usually try to give some basic grounding in their creations within every book, so readers discovering imaginary places for the first time can familiarize themselves sufficiently with a world so as to be able to navigate a story without being required to begin with the first tale set there and work their way into every one of the new books, one at a time. But not all authors do this: some present stories that are self-contained only for people already quite familiar with the places where they occur and with the rules, personalities and requirements of those places. Thus, Barren is a taut novella set in the world of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle – which Brett never elucidates at all, clearly aiming the book at existing fans to whom the events of Barren will make perfect sense because they already understand the milieu in which those events occur. Nicely done for those readers, the book is almost completely incoherent for anyone not already knowledgeable about the Demon Cycle series, which has been extending and expanding its reach ever since the first book appeared in 2009 as The Warded Man (actually in 2008 in Great Britain, as The Painted Man). The primary cycle of novels then moved into The Desert Spear, The Daylight War, The Skull Throne, and finally The Core, and Brett produced three standalone novellas as well: The Great Bazaar, Brayan’s Gold, and Messenger’s Legacy. So Barren is part of a very extended and internally consistent world – but one with which readers must be quite familiar for the story to make sense. It is about small-town politics and sexuality, about families that cooperate only uneasily against a greater threat but that harbor decades-long resentments that fester until they eventually break out, and about the uneasy alliances that are needed in order to prevent the destruction of the town and its people by monstrously evil magical creatures. The themes are scarcely original, but the setting is – for those who understand it. Barren is a very poor entry point for anyone seeking to find out what the Demon Cycle is all about. Not even the dates make sense: some chapters occur in 334 AR, others in 284 AR, but what “AR” means is never explained, although there is a single passing reference to “the Return.” Regarding from where or by whom or under what circumstances, there is not even a whisper. The underlying conflict between religious fundamentalists and the town’s secular contingent is clear enough, but there is nothing explained about the holy book that the groups interpret so differently, often with such dire consequences. And the whole matter of “demons,” including frequent references to “the core” and “corespawn” and curses incorporating the word “core,” makes no sense whatsoever. Apparently there are largely mindless, inherently vicious, evil demons that can move about only at night, and they have unremitting enmity for humans, who use magical wards and charms to hold them off and kill them. The demons, on the basis of Barren alone, are 100% perfect (or 100% imperfect) boogeymen, seeking nothing but to destroy people unless the people destroy them first – they are nameless, faceless, implacable forces of darkness that are evil because they are evil. That is a pretty poor setup for a series that runs to five novels and four novellas, and in truth it is not the entirety of the story of the Demon Cycle, by any means. But Barren is wholly lacking in background sufficient to make the world in which the novella takes place intelligible, so readers are left with a well-paced story about small-town intolerance of those who “deviate” from the norm and are in violation of proscriptions in some holy book or other – and about the deaths and difficulties that the narrow-mindedness causes for just about all the major characters. There is nothing wrong with this story arc, but it is a hyper-familiar one, and the elements designed to differentiate it, the elements of worldbuilding involving magic and demons, are presented in so superficial and slapdash a fashion here that Barren becomes a story of little appeal except to those already well-informed about the world where it takes place.
The world where the story of a cat named Eeebs occurs is another one requiring intimate familiarity for the narrative to be at all entertaining. The first book in a planned series called Tales of an 8-Bit Kitten is a start-of the-quest setup labeled “An Unofficial Minecraft Adventure” and written by videogame enthusiast “Cube Kid,” previously the creator of the Diary of an 8-Bit Warrior sequence – which the kitten-flavored one will undoubtedly parallel closely, even containing some of the same characters. But non-readers of the earlier series – and, more to the point, anyone not highly familiar with Minecraft – will get so little from Lost in the Nether that they are unlikely to get past the first few chapters. The story is as basic as a fantasy can be: young protagonist wanders into dangerous land, is transformed into a hero, and discovers that he represents the fulfillment of a prophecy. Eeebs looks like a Minecraft creation, of course – the illustrations by Vladimir “ZloyXP” Subbotin are absolutely true to the look of the game – and his opponents also fit the Minecraft world very well, and are as silly and feckless as can be: led by an Enderman named EnderStar whose primary objective is to be evil, the bad guys include wither skeletons, zombie pigmen and so forth, and they are stupid to the point of hilarity. They are initially seen being unable to do much of anything because it is too bright, leading EnderStar to look up at the square yellow thing in the sky and shake his fist at it, saying, “I can’t believe this! All of my planning, ruined by the stupid sun!” (Yes, the sun is square in Minecraft.) Later, Eeebs has a meeting with an endermage named Greyfellow, whose initial babbling does not help much of anything but who eventually shows Eeebs and two other heroic kittens screens that “are called visual enhancements” and “can be used to interact with objects or your inventory, or they can simply display data.” The following discussion of screens actually provides more information on the Minecraft world than is ever provided about the world of the Demon Cycle, but because this material shows up halfway through Lost in the Nether, it is unlikely that anyone unfamiliar with Minecraft will still be reading. No matter: the information reminds readers who are Minecraft fans of some elements of the world, and it fleshes out (or bricks out) the abilities that Eeebs and the other now-powerful kittens have or can develop. Unlike Barren, which is intense, extremely serious and intended for adults, Lost in the Nether is lighthearted, amusing and aimed at the young demographic that delights in Minecraft. But one thing the two books have in common is that they target readers who are already in the know about the worlds where the events occur: you simply cannot be a newcomer (“noob” in Minecraft) and get the full flavor, or very much of the impact, of either of these series entries.
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