The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett

Del Rey
March 2009
ISBN 978-0345503800
432 Pages
Hobbit’s Review of the UK edition:

There’s no doubt that Epic Fantasy is alive and strong. Every year it seems a new author bursts onto the scene with a book that catches hold of the collective reader’s imaginations. The past few years have seen writers like Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, and Brandon Sanderson come onto the scene. In late 2008 (in the UK) and in early 2009 in the US, the author who seems to be making the most waves with readers is Peter V. Brett and his debut novel The Warded Man.

The world in which this novel takes place would best be described as harsh and unforgiving. People live in small towns in fear of the night, for as the sun sets, demons rise from the earth to wreak havoc. The setting, though not overly descriptive on Brett’s part, is very evocative. The world comes through the characters (primary, secondary and background) eyes and their actions. The feel is almost like the Old West or even what the Dust Bowl– these people eke out a meager living getting through their daily tasks and closing up the proverbial shop at night to hide behind the wards that keep away the Corelings, as the demons are referred to by the characters. In some horrific instances, the corelings manage to break through the wards and kill, burn, and destroy towns. It is in this harsh desolate setting that Brett introduces the character of Arlen.

Arlen’s family is torn apart by a savage demon attack and as a result, Arlen is forever changed. Rejecting his father’s cowardice in the face of his mother’s death, Arlen flees his village in the hopes of becoming a Messenger – those men with the honed skills and tools necessary to brave the more than a day travel’s worth of distance between villages to deliver goods and messages. In many ways, The Warded Man is Arlen’s journey from country bumpkin to man of the world. Again, this is a simplistic and clichéd way to describe Arlen’s character arc, but it is Brett’s skill at detailing Arlen’s journey of discover that help to make the novel so damned enjoyable.

While Arlen’s story comprises a majority of the novel, Brett follows two other characters profoundly affected by demon attacks. Leesha is a young woman in another equally desolate and isolated village. Living under the strict rule of her whorish mother, Leesha wishes to escape the life she has and vows to be the polar opposite of her mother when she becomes an adult. As a result of all the pain and suffering she sees, Leesha’s goal in life is to become a healer, to help those wounded by corelings. Our other hero is the jongleur, Rojer who is ‘adopted’ by a popular bard/jongleur at a very young age after his family is killed by corelings. His dreams are of becoming a renowned musician and entertainer.

In both Leesha and Arlen, Brett gives us characters motivated to become the antithesis of their same sex parents; Arlen rejecting his dad and Leesha rejecting her mom. To an extent, Rojer even seeks to differentiate himself from his own mentor, who eventually becomes a drunk and is held in low respect from his peers. This theme of familial rejection is in contrast to one of the over-riding themes of Arlen’s journey, embrace of the past. Arlen is driven to seek out what hurts the demons. The hinted at past of this world, passed down both orally and literally, infers that 3,000 years in the past, man lived in a highly technological society only to be thrown off its throne of dominance by the demon uprising. Man slowly recovered only to be thrown into the decimated state we see in the novel 300 years prior to the opening of the novel. There’s a continual fluctuation from character to character on either embracing the now – that is merely defending against the corelings and looking to the past – when man stood on (at least) equal footing with the corelings and to take a proactive role in ridding the world of demons.

The small isolated villages comprise the majority of human society in this novel and while I wouldn’t say it isn’t exactly a medieval setting it is a degradation to a level of technology equal to medieval. In some ways, a minor parallel can be drawn to Terry Brooks’s Shannara series in that the world of 3,000 years prior to the novel could possibly be our own world. A stronger parallel that resonated with me is the world of Stephen King’s Dark Tower – in many ways, the aura of a technological breakdown and even the Old West feel permeates Brett’s world. The harshness and unconnected pools of humanity that flavor Brett’s world also remind me of King’s opus. Other things like the name Rojer, a phonetic cousin to Roger, and much of the language bears potential fruit for a phonetically similar past as “our” world. Brett does well to only hint at such things, giving readers questions to ponder as we wait for The Desert Spear, the second volume of the as-yet untitled series.

Some readers may be put-off by the youthful protagonists and straightforward writing at the beginning would do well to soldier on towards the end. Brett’s evolution of style subtly matches the evolution of the story itself.

While The Warded Man is a complete novel in and of itself – it has a clear beginning, middle, end, and resolution, the last chapter opens the door to The Desert Spear. As a debut novel, it is a most impressive narrative for many reasons. Brett’s ability to tow the line between familiar elements and a fresh spin; his great storytelling skills; and the other line he towed between giving enough details about this desolate world to whet reader’s appetites and not launching into exposition-laden info dumps.

Story elements and character types will be immediately recognizable in Brett’s novel – youthful protagonists with parental issues and an overreaching struggle of humanity against a perceived evil. The thing with this book and Brett’s skill at weaving everything together is that despite recognizing some of the clichés with which he flavors the story, it all works in a way that makes such tropes a blip on the radar. The story flows incredibly well and essentially, Brett has written an “unputdownable” book in The Warded Man and one of my favorite reads of 2009.

© 2009 Rob H. Bedford

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