The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett
(titled The Warded Man in the US)
Published by Harper Collins/HarperVoyager, October 2008 (UK)
March 2009 (US)
Review by Mark Yon
Word of mouth can be a wonderful thing for a writer. Authors and publishers often dream about books that generate sales through buzz, because of comments by readers.
This is such a book. In the UK, as well as in the SFFWorld Forums, the book has, since its publication in the UK in October 2008, generated steady comments and positive reviews from all over the blogosphere. On the eve of its publication in the US, I guess the question for many people reading this is whether it deserves such positivity.
The story's structure is divided into four sections. Within those sections, the tale mainly concerns itself with the growing-up of Arlen, who begins the book as a young boy in the village of Tibbet’s Brook.
At first, this is a world that seems to be a typical quasi-medieval fantasy world. Life in Tibbet’s Brook is basically nasty, brutish and short. However there is one unusual development here, as the lives of the people in this world are dominated by demons- corelings – who appear every night, from dusk until dawn. Wood demons, stone demons, water demons, all have a hunger for living flesh and who spend a lot of the time through the book happily eviscerating any poor unfortunate left exposed.
Consequently, for protection, the people spend their nights behind wards – symbols drawn, cut or chiseled into wood, metal, earth or stone, which keep the demons at bay until daylight reappears and the corelings retreat until the next evening.
This existence seems to have been the norm for many generations, until this point, when, as Arlen grows up, he becomes a key figure in the human fight against such demons.
So we have, at first glance, a fairly straightforward rite of passage tale.
The book essentially works because of the fact that Peter takes the fairly traditional quasi-Medieval Fantasyland template but then shifts it into something a little different by virtue of this fairly novel concept (which made me think of computer games such as Silent Hill and the film Forbidden Planet). The plot development from the harsh banality of small village life, to the complex immensity of city dwelling, and then to the world outside most human’s knowledge is very well done.
The book’s biggest strength, though, is the characterization. Though the book starts a little pedestrianly in the small village of Tibbet’s Brook, as other characters are introduced along the way, such as Leesha the healer-in-training and Rojer the trainee Jongleur (jester), the story’s multi-strand narratives broaden the initially narrow world-view and shows more facets to the world’s societal range. This wins the reader over so such a degree that minor clichés are forgiven.
That is not to say that there are weaknesses: at times, initially, the dialogue is a little histrionic and the actions of some characters a little too harsh for my liking, with at least one cliché near the beginning of the novel I could’ve done without.
After this though, the tale settles into something more enjoyable. In its last sections the book broadens the world-perspective by bringing in an old tribe, a mysterious deserted city and a weapon from ‘the old times’, which sets things up nicely for Book 2, The Desert Spear, due later in 2009.
In summary, this is a great page turner which, despite a few initial wobbles, soon becomes an irresistible read. The characters evolve into people you care about and the world is pleasantly engaging, despite some quite horrific scenes and some unsettlingly frank language.
I was pleased, though a little surprised, to place this in my top five Fantasy reads for 2008. Though not perfect, there’s enough here to secure the future of a new writer who should be very pleased indeed with his debut. Those comments made about this book in the blogosphere might be justified, after all.
Mark Yon, December 2008
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