Peter V. Brett – “The Painted Man”

9 Sep

Brett, Peter V - The Painted Man[US title: The Warded Man]

GENRE: Fantasy
PUBLISHED: Harper Voyager, 2009

SERIES: Demon Trilogy, #1

WHY THIS NOVEL: liked the cover, the blurb sounded good, and then I read positive comments

Sometimes, there is very good reason to be afraid of the dark…

Arlen lives with his parents on their small farmstead, half a day’s ride from the isolated hamlet of Tibbet’s Brook. As dusk falls each evening, a mist rises from the ground promising death to any foolish enough to brave the coming darkness. For hungry demons materialize from the vapors to feed, and as the shadows lenghthen, humanity is forced to take shelter behind magical wards and pray that their protection holds until the dawn.

But when Arlen’s world is shattered by the demon plague, he realizes that it is fear, rather than the monsters, which truly cripples humanity. Only by conquering their own terror can they ever hope to defeat the demons. Now Arlen must risk leaving the safety of his wards to discover a different path, and offer humanity a last, fleeting chance of survival.

The world in The Painted Man is ruled by fear, by fear of demons that rise in the night and feed on any living being they find. The only protection the people in this world have are wards. Wards get painted and scratched on everything – and they should surround the place someone stays the night. So one ward on the door won’t help but if done right, the wards form a magical barrier that keeps the demons from breaking through even when they try all night to do just that. Which they do, in fact. They smash themselves again and again against the wards to find a weakness or to maybe weaken the wards. The dwindling population of this world is testament to their success and the bad place humans are in in this story.

In this world, three children grow up who struggle against expectations and their lot in life. They don’t start out that way. It’s a slow development, and along the way, they are tested several times before they arrive at their conviction to fight the demons instead of cower in fear.

There’s Arlen, a farm boy with a knack for warding; Leesha, a village girl who can’t wait to marry her betrothed to escape her mother and accidentally discovers her knack for healing; and there’s Rojer, who lost two fingers in a demon attack and still works wonders with his fiddle. Out of the three, Rojer is the youngest (he’s three at the outset). He also doesn’t exactly fit the mold of growing up in a rural, backwater kind of place like Arlen and Leesha do, because he’s orphaned at three, taken in by a Jongleur and then goes to live in a city.

But all the same, the world these children grow up in is a narrow, petty, and greedy world inhabited more often than not by nasty, narrow-minded and sometimes hypocritical people. From the time you’re born, your place in the world is set and people who don’t fit in or want something different are viewed with suspicion. Nearly everyone looks out only for himself. Knowledge is fractured (someone dies because the local herb gatherer didn’t know the cure, a plant regarded as weed in that part of the world) and huge parts of knowledge are lost altogether.

The isolation of the villages and hamlets doesn’t help and furthers ignorance and unethical behavior. Most people stay where they are born. Traveling for several days is very dangerous because with the villages far-flung, it usually means spending the night outside with just a small warding circle as protection against the demons. Nearly the sole exception are Messengers who travel from village to village, bringing goods and news.

In such a fractured world and society, taking up the fight against the demons isn’t easy. In fact, it’s not something even thought about (much). Too great is the fear of the demons. The Painted Man looks at what fear does to society. At the end of of the novel, Arlen, Leesha and Rojer are planning to no longer cower in fear. The Painted Man tells the story of how against all odds they arrive at that place.

Arlen’s story is the main focus of the novel. It’s the part that concerns itself mostly with the question of fear:

Ever since the night he had seen Jeph watch his wife be cored from the safety of his porch wards, Arlen had known that the corelings’ greatest weapon was fear. What he hadn’t understood was that fear took many forms. For all his attempts to prove otherwise, Arlen was terrified of being alone. He wanted someone, anyone, to believe in what he was doing. Someone to fight with, and for.
But there was no one. He saw that now. If he wanted companionship, he would have to slink back to the cities and accept it on their terms. If he wanted to fight, he had to do it alone. (400)

Overall, The Painted Man treads well-known paths for fantasy novels with its cast of main characters (fighter, healer, bard) and the way the story unfolds (country bumpkin, lost knowledge, evil to fight). The evil in the form of demons probably adds a slightly different element to the mix. It also made me interested in the answer to the following questions:

  • Why do demons exist?
  • Will the characters face other demons, demons unknown for now but depicted on paintings in old ruins?
  • Is there a uniting force/will behind the demons?
  • Will character(s) be able to go to the core, the place demons stay during the day?
  • Will there be an explanation of how and why wards work?

But sadly, the execution of it all didn’t quite work for me. I was never really pulled in.

I like to read fantasy novels but I still read only a few each year. I would guess no more than ten. So that might explain why I’m a bit puzzled about comments that praise the way this novel is written. The writing serves its purpose – tell the story – but it’s only sometimes that the writing really flowed and felt rich IMO. Most of the time, it gives just the basics without any extra textures and connections which makes the writing often more plodding and clipped than I like in reading.

Equally distancing, there are several POV characters and even in their POV scenes, there are still other characters who get their POV paragraphs. There is character development – Arlen, Leesha, Rojer sure end the story in a different place than they began – but because of several jumps of time (the story covers nearly 15 years) I sometimes thought I missed relevant developments. Instead, other things are repeated and some of the things told are not all that interesting. In addition, there are sudden changes in characters’ behavior, women are either a whore or a virgin, and basically, a character is either good or bad. And despite the frequent demon attacks, this novel seemed slow-paced in that I thought: when does the real story begin?

This might be in part because The Painted Man is the first novel in a trilogy. But even then, and with the questions above and a hunch that political problems are coming, I’m actually not sure about getting the next novel. It’s not the so far fairly formulaic story per se. I can enjoy those but I then prefer “more” in terms of writing and characterization.

Verdict: An okay read. (3/5)

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5 Responses to “Peter V. Brett – “The Painted Man””

  1. nath Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 10:26 pm #

    Ugh, there’s nothing worst than to read a huge book and not being drawn into the world, especially with fantasy ^_^; I don’t know how you did it, Taja…

    Thanks for the great review, I think I’m going to skip this one LOL 🙂

  2. Taja Thursday, September 10, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

    nath – LOL, I guess I didn’t convince you. 😛 There are quite a lot people who liked this novel much better. What I liked best about it is that it looks at what fear does to society and people. I thought that quite interesting.

  3. Jace Friday, May 21, 2010 at 4:55 am #

    I found it at last! I was looking all over your blog for this review. 😀 The story sure sounds interesting, doesn’t it? Looking at all the things that bugged you, I think I’ll skip this one. Your comment “When does the real story begin?” kind of seals the (no reading) deal. 😀

  4. Jace Friday, May 21, 2010 at 4:56 am #

    Oh look, my avatar decides to show up! 😀 Come to think of it, it’s been showing up in the last few posts, hasn’t it?

  5. Taja Monday, May 24, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    Jace – I’m sorry you had to be so persistent. But thanks you kept looking! 🙂

    Yes, I also think there’s an interestng story there. Somewhere, that is. *g* At the end of the novel, I had the impression that now finally all the players were in place and the game could begin, so to say. Shame that I wasn’t really impressed by the writing so I’m not really keen on picking up the next in the series.

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