Aldric Talvalin has vanquished the sorcerer who killed his family and forced him into hiding for several years and has taken a journey into foreign lands on a secret mission for his king to prove his loyalty. Unfortunately, not terribly far into his trip he is ambushed by foreign agents and must take refuge in a village that is being stalked by a deadly beast – a werewolf, which Aldric finds hard to believe until almost too late – that has claimed the lives of several villagers. His honour – plus the fact that he is the only competent person around – demands that he vanquish it…
The Demon Lord is the follow-up to The Horse Lord, Peter Morwood’s debut novel. That book was informed with a refreshing cynicism about the motives of the high-born when they come into conflict with an honest man’s sense of honour. Here it goes a little bit further with Aldric alone and hunted in an alien land and forced to rely on his wits and not-inconsiderable skills as a swordsman to get by.
But there’s not just a beast to contend with: there’s a father-and-son team of magicians who have unwittingly released a demon from another dimension into the bowels of their citadel, a citadel they usurped from a lord they murdered… a lord whose daughter Gueynor is the niece of the woodsman that Aldric is hunting the beast with… and then there’s Voord, a junior officer of the Drusalan Empire with ties to Aldric that the young lord isn’t even aware of yet.
However, Aldric is also contending with the clichés of the genre. Fortunately, Mr Morwood is well aware of the type of story he is telling and he has a bit of fun with the trappings along the way: at one point Aldric and Gueynor disguise themselves to get into the citadel and Gueynor dyes her hair red and wears it in a different style that covers her face – almost like a hood, reminding us of another story set in a forest featuring a ravenous beast. In another scene, Aldric is preparing to hunt the beast and melts down some silver coins to make arrowheads – purely as a precaution, of course. It’s a scene that’s become a trope of the horror genre, but it goes wrong for Aldric at a crucial moment because the currency of the realm has become so debased that there is almost no silver in it anymore.
Ultimately, though, it is the setting of a forest in the height of summer which is where Morwood excels himself: the atmosphere is pregnant with foreboding and tension and the stifling climate almost becomes a character in its own right, which is no mean feat in a story filled with such a memorable cast. The titular demon is almost incidental to the plot and you almost think it might just be easier for Aldric to just cement the door closed but unfortunately its presence is weakening the fabric of the universe and would let some other eldritch horrors through, which leaves our hero with the task of liberating the citadel from the sorcerers, defeating the Lovecraftian demon and placing Gueynor back in her rightful position.
Really, despite being part of a series that has plot elements playing out from the first book and leaving clues that are going to be important for the next volume, there is very much a sense of this being a story that can be read without reference to any other title. It has the feel of the “wandering hero” series beloved of readers and television viewers in days of yore, but it offers some easter eggs for readers who stick around for the whole thing.
You can find out more about Peter Morwood at https://petermorwood.tumblr.com/