Saturday, February 7, 2009

Peter V. Brett - The Painted Man / The Warded Man (Book Review)

"The Painted Man" (Amazon: UK) a.k.a. "The Warded Man" (Amazon: US)
Format: Hardcover, 560/423 pages
Publisher: HarperVoyage/Del Rey (September 1, 2008/March 10, 2009)
PETER V. BRETT burst onto the epic fantasy scene in late 2008 with a memorable, but also quite traditional debut effort entitled “The Painted Man” (aka “The Warded Man” in the US). I requested a review copy from the author himself over half a year ago and he was kind enough to provide one for our blog; due to unfortunate circumstances (and a bit of lazy inertia) I didn’t get to read the novel well past what I’d consider polite (I did ask for this title, not the other way around) or professional (by my own standards). Be as it may, now that I’ve finished the book, I must say I really liked it, despite some undisputable shortcomings which I’ll address later.

To return to the initial statement; “The Painted Man” is stalwart in the way that it includes many of the run-of-the-mill tropes that define epic fantasy – a) first fifty or so pages are a variation on Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time”, but without the nagging braid-tugging, skirt straightening etc. nonsense; and b) the main theme could be easily, but not entirely justly, summarized as “a farm boy grows up to be a hero” – but it’s also fresh and tailored for the modern reader. Yes, even epic fantasy has to grow in some ways. BRETT’s heroes refrain from becoming passive pushovers, who get swept up by the development of events, running brainlessly around and depending on luck or just standing idle for the benevolent and all-knowing sage to guide them by the hand. Here, the three protagonists, each given his own POV, take their fate into their own hands, or at least they show the will to do so.


With every nightfall, demons rise from the Core and sow terror throughout the known world. The only thing that keeps them at bay are wards, a form of protective runes, drawn around homes and cities, where mankind huddles in terror of the night. But the wards often fail, and when that happens, carnage ensues. Neighbors and friends can do little else, but watch from the protective prisons of their homes and hope that their wards will hold for the night. But there are individuals who are sick of hiding and being unable to fight back. One of them is Arlen, a young boy, who chooses to search for a way to strike back upon seeing his mother torn apart by a horde of Corelings…

The other two POV’s are just as enticing as the determined Arlen; Leesha, a maid of 13, is apprenticed to a local Herb Gatherer – a healer of a sort – after being falsely accused of premarital sex. She finds succour, understanding and a friendship of a sort with the ancient Herb Gatherer. Rojer, on the other hand, is an apprentice jongleur who struggles to make a living for himself and his fallen-from-grace drunken master. At the end of the novel all three plotlines converge in a cataclysmic battle for Cutter’s Hollow, a small village whose residents take a stand for themselves and defy the terrors that rise with the night.


Like I’ve already mentioned, there is nothing vastly original in “The Painted Man”, but when I’ve finished reading the book I couldn’t help but admire what BRETT delivered on the market. What makes this book special is characterization. Most of the characters are walking stereotypes, true, but BRETT really has a knack at presenting character traits and fleshing them out through engaging dialogue and events they participate in. The three main protagonists are smart, witty and what is most important – likeable. They grow on you before you know it. The author would do well writing plays (satires and comedies in foremost), since he is really good at bringing his relatively non complex, but never trivial, characters to life.

An example of great character portrayal and snippets of a fairly amusing scene as well:
‘Sweet day!’ Leesha exclaimed. ‘You have more books than Tender Michel!’
---‘These aren’t witless stories censored by the Holy Men, girl. Herb Gatherers are keepers of a bit of the knowledge of the old world, from back before the Return, when the demons burned the great libraries.’

---‘Science?’ Leesha asked. ‘Was that not the hubris that brought on the plague?’

---‘That’s Michel talking,’ Bruna said. ‘If I’d know that boy would grow into such a pompous ass, I’d have left him between his mother’s legs. It was science, as much as magic, that drove the Corelings off the first time. The sagas tell of great Herb Gatherers healing mortal wounds, and mixing herbs and minerals that killed demons by the score with fire and poison.

…Her hands were quick, but Leesha still noticed the old woman throw something extra in Gared’s cup. She poured the water, and they all sipped in an awkward silence. Gared drank his quickly, and soon began rubbing his face. A moment later, he slumped over, fast asleep.
---‘You put something in his tea,’ Leesha accused.

The old woman cackled. ‘Tampweed resin and skyflower pollen,’ she said. ‘Each with many uses alone, but together, a pinch can put a bull to sleep.
---‘But why?’ Leesha asked.

---Bruna smiled, but it was a frightening thing. ‘Call it chaperoning,’ she said. ‘Promised or no, you can’t trust a fifteen year old boy alone with a young girl at night.’
---‘Then why let him come along?’ Leesha asked.

---Bruna shook her head. ‘I told your father not to marry that shrew, but she dangled her udders at him and left him dizzy,’ she sighed. ‘Drunk as they are, Steave and your mum are going to have at it no matter who’s in the house’ she said. ‘But that don’t mean Gared ought to hear it. Boys are bad enough at his age, as is.’

---‘Don’t be so quick to leave childhood behind, girl,’ Bruna said. ‘You’ll find you miss it when it’s gone. There’s more to the world than lying under a man and making his babies.’

---‘But what else could compare?’ Leesha asked.

Bruna gestured to her shelf. ‘Choose a book,’ she said. ‘Any book. Bring it here, and I’ll show you what else the world can offer.’
Bruna, the Herb Gatherer, transforms in this short scene from being a trickster, ‘an old hag’ and a bit of a bully to a friend, consort and an intelligent person.

The story, looked at as a whole, is nothing we haven’t seen somewhere else before as well, but it is wholesome, it brings to a satisfying conclusion (no major cliff-hangers!) and it genuinely makes you want to read more…fortunately, the sequel with a catchy title “The Desert Spear”, comes out sometimes this year (around summer I believe).

The style is very reminiscent of David Gemmell, and maybe Paul Kearney, but without more somber elements of storytelling of the latter. This is nothing less than a compliment in my book. I extremely enjoyed how some of the events unfolded and how particular life choices (and their consequences) played out. A few ‘unsanctimonious‘ elements of the story (e.g. implied incest and referrals to sex that are made at times) made some people resentful of the author, but I believe that he made the right choices and I respect him for how he handled things. But what I respect the most about this novel is that it’s honest and straightforward (this is where most of my Gemmell referrals come from). The characters aren’t preoccupied by feelings of guilt or incapitated by personal trauma, even though some really bad things happen to them. Sure, it marks them in some way, but their every move isn’t saturated with what happened in the past. They have a very pragmatic attitude towards life, they want to live it, not pass through it without tasting at least a little of it.

The majority of the story is embedded in an alternative Anglo-Saxon (bordering on Renaissance) setting, but a part of Arlen’s voyage takes him through a desert land, a home to, you guessed it, a fierce Arab-influenced culture. The lore and constant referrals to the old world suggest that this is a post-apocalyptic world, akin to that of Terry Brook’s Shannara. A new element, introduced by BRETT, is that people can hardly travel for more than a half-a-day’s length away from their homes, since getting caught outside during night means certain death. Only a few brave individuals (i.e. Messengers) are sturdy and experienced enough to travel around and act the role of messengers and tradesmen alike.

Most of what I’ve said until now was praise, and it’s not entirely undeserved, since there’s not many books, especially those of the epic fantasy genre with a traditional premise (think Wheel of Time for a moment), that manage to draw me in so profusely. Well, this book managed it with ease. I shouldn’t get too carried away, though, since this still counts as a light-weight read that fits completely within genre limits, so don’t ruin your fun by expecting the unexpected. “The Painted Man” doesn’t even try to hide where it comes from and who it’s meant for, and thus sits proudly and comfortably among its genre colleagues; well it just might be the best fantasy debut of 2008. Kudos, Mr. BRETT.

- Thrinidir -


Plinydogg said...

Great review! I've got a copy of this one on the way and am really looking forward to reading it!

ThRiNiDiR said...

Thanks for the compliment, I think you'll enjoy it :).

ediFanoB said...

Well done!!
You validate my decision to order this book. Paperback will be released in Germany in April 2009.


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