Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Book review: The Painted Man

The Painted Man

By Peter V. Brett

(HarperVoyager, September 2008)

Peter V. Brett's been one of the success stories in the genre in the last year or so, with his debut fantasy novel garnering plenty of critical acclaim not to mention numerous foreign rights deals. And as reported recently, there's a movie in the works too. Still, as we all know a novel's popularity is not always indicative of its quality. It was with some interest though that I finally got round to picking up The Painted Man (or The Warded Man, to use the inferior title that Brett's US publisher gave it - let's not even get started on that).

What immediately grabs you - and what the publishers were keen to emphasise - is the simple, but interesting premise: when darkness falls, demons emerge from the 'Core' and hunt the night for prey while mankind cowers behind magical wards - ancient symbols that keep the demons at bay. Humanity is fighting a losing battle, as the ancient wards that can actually harm demons are long forgotten, and entire communities are paralysed with fear of the night and the creatures that dwell in it. Yet perhaps the balance of power is shifting, as a young country boy decides it's time to fight back...

Yes, country boy. One of the oldest clichés of the fantasy genre rears its head in the first few pages of the book. It's not alone either. If you take the premise out of the equation, Brett's world is pretty much a standard feudal medieval world without an awful lot to recommend it (although there are one or two hints that the setting is post-apocalyptic). On top of that, the three POV characters all grow up and take on roles that wouldn't be out of place in a D&D adventuring party. To put a cherry on top, there's a prophecy as well - noooooo! - although admittedly this serves a different purpose.

To criticise the inclusion of such clichés, however, is unfair. After all, it's not which clichés you use that matters, but how you use them. It will suffice to say though that their presence does lend a rather familiar air to much of the first half of the book. The village of Tibbet's Brook, where Arlen's early chapters take place, reminded me of Emond's Field from The Wheel of Time. In fact, Brett's novel starts in a remarkably similar fashion to Jordan's first work in his epic series. To be honest, it was only the constant threat of the demons that held my interest as Brett slowly revealed and developed his three child protagonists.

While Brett does construct some believable characters and relationships, the first half of The Painted Man is not particularly remarkable. What we essentially have is three kids growing up in communities paralysed by fear, and learning a few harsh life-lessons along the way. It's well-handled and eminently readable, but not particularly exciting or absorbing. Furthermore, the credibility of the premise was damaged somewhat by Arlen's actions: if a young boy can survive a night in the wild by scratching runes in the earth, subsequently protecting him from the demons, then what exactly is everyone so terrified about? Sure, you can argue that Arlen's a gifted youngster and better than many adults at using wards, but I found it hard to suspend my belief here.

So, halfway through the novel and so far, so average. Then it slowly changes. It's subtle at first, so much so that I wasn't even sure at which point I started caring about the characters or when I realised for the first time that I was eagerly anticipating what happened next. All that matters is that it did happen, and I'm glad I managed to get through the early stages of the book because the rest of the novel was well worth it.

I think the catalyst for this change is the fact that in the second half of the book, the characters are older. The novel subsequently takes on a darker tone. Whereas the prose in the first half of the novel - while perfectly readable - does lend itself to one or two rather cheesy moments, in the second half it's noticeably edgier, more mature. The second part of the novel also bears the fruits of all the characterisation groundwork Brett lays down early on. Arlen, Rojer and Leesha become well-rounded personalities with plenty of depth; they inspire genuine involvement on the reader's part. Brett creates believable relationships between the three, and this strong characterisation really is the driving point of the novel later on. In fact, Brett's presentation of human emotion is commendable and sometimes even Gemmell-esque, which is one of the highest compliments I could pay to any author, let alone a new one. In addition, he explores a number of themes such as the role of religion, with Arlen a significant critic of how his people rely on age-old prophecies rather than taking action themselves. The idea of fear and how it must be confronted is another theme that underpins the story.

Brett's writing ability is also deserving of praise. Despite the fact that only a couple of chapters take place in the desert fortress city of Krasia, Brett nonetheless manages to bring the place to life to such an extent that these chapters were probably my favourite in the entire novel (by the sounds of it, plenty of the action in The Desert Spear is set there, so I'll look forward to that). Brett also proves adept at writing absorbing combat scenes, with the final confrontation at the climax of the novel particularly gripping.

I did have some complaints though. There is one particular sexual encounter that just seemed totally out of character (I won't say who was involved; suffice to say that I've noted other readers were critical of it as well). Brett actually explained the reasoning behind this scene, and while I accept his argument I still felt it was not at all in accordance with the character's personality or earlier actions.

In addition, it could be argued that the people of Krasia (clearly a society based on the Islamic Republics of the Middle East) were perhaps portrayed in an unfavourable light, with the more negative aspects of Islamic culture being highlighted. This wasn't really a problem for me, though I did feel Brett was perhaps sailing a little close to the wind, and could have used the opportunity to promote what is positive about Islamic culture. Then again, maybe I speak too soon and we'll see further development on this point in The Desert Spear.

A minor criticism that I have centers on a later scene where two characters were rescued from demons in the nick of time. This scene had a whiff of deus ex machina about it, and as it was clearly crucial to the plot that it happened, it just felt contrived.

Verdict: The Painted Man is ultimately a book of two halves. The first is unremarkable and overly-familiar at times, held together only by Brett's solid writing and the excellent premise. The second half is where the novel matures into an exciting, very well-written story featuring strong characterisation and gripping action scenes. If you can get through the first half, you'll be well rewarded. And if The Desert Spear is more like the second half of The Painted Man as opposed to the first, then fans have much to look forward to.

10 comments:

Salt-Man Z said...

Good book, but let's talk about the title change. To me, "The Warded Man" makes far more sense than "The Painted Man". He is, after all, covered with wards, and the vast majority of them are tattooed on, not painted. "Warded" (though it admittedly does not roll of the tongue as well) just seems to work better on both a literal and thematic level.

I've thought about this often since reading the book earlier this year, but I've yet to find online any actual discussions of, or clarifications on, the title/name change.

Kevin said...

"Furthermore, the credibility of the premise was damaged somewhat by Arlen's actions: if a young boy can survive a night in the wild by scratching runes in the earth, subsequently protecting him from the demons, then what exactly is everyone so terrified about? Sure, you can argue that Arlen's a gifted youngster and better than many adults at using wards, but I found it hard to suspend my belief here."

I thought that was one of the key themes of the novel- that adults, far more mindful of their mortality than children, tend to default to the safest, most conservative of actions despite how brave they say they are.

In Brett's world, people are so focused on being defensive and surviving day to day, there is little motive to be proactive. Brett consistently portrays societies big and small that have no interest in challenging their preconceptions. Those few who do have interest in pushing boundaries are relatively isolated to do the sheer danger of travel and communication.

Arlen is successful not just because he is gifted at warding, but because as a child he is naive enough to question the norms and is then put into situations where he has to act for his survival.

Jessica Strider said...

I agree with Kevin. Given how stressful Arlen's first few nights alone in the dark are, I couldn't see most adults risking that. Especially if they didn't consider themselves gifted at wards. The demons were depicted as being quite horrific - and all you'd need is one line scuffed and your wards are useless.

I'd also disagree with your point of Brett's having the opportunity to show the good points of Islamic culture in his desert scenes. Yes, it's fairly obvious that he based his culture on Islam. But BASING something on something else does not equate them with each other. His commentary on the FICTIONAL RACE he uses in his novel isn't a commentary on the actual Islamic race of the real world. Sometimes we forget that while fantasy CAN relate to the real world, it doesn't necessarily do so. (As in, I haven't heard that he'd intended this to be a commentary on how Islamic nations work. That doesn't mean people can't read it as such, but it also doesn't mean that he's dissing Islam by having a desert race act like - well, people who've had to adapt to living in a desert.)

Hagelrat said...

I unreservedly loved this book and I don't really care what they call i. I found early on I was absorbed by the characters. I would admit the books success is more down to Brett's skill as a writer than the originality but I was delighted to find nothing threw me out of the story.

James said...

Salt-Man Z: I absolutely agree, 'The Warded Man' is a much more logical title - but 'The Painted Man' just sounds way cooler. In any case, I doubt Brett's US publisher changed the name because it was more accurate, I rather suspect instead it was changed due to the racial connotations with the word 'painted' (much like how Richard Morgan's 'Black Man' was changed to the rather weak 'Thirteen' in the States. Strange, but there you go.

Kevin: You raise a good point there. No doubt that is also Brett's reasoning behind Arlen's actions. Still, for me it did take the edge off the fear factor a little.

Jessica: You're right and I certainly wasn't implying that it was a commentary on the nature of Islam (if that's the impression I gave, I apologise!). As I said, the negative characteristics of Krasian society didn't bother me, though I did feel that to some extent they were being built up as the 'bad guys' and that's always going to make some people a little uncomfortable, given the nature of the world we live in.

Hagelrat: You're right: the story succeeds because of Brett's skill as a writer. It's a very good debut.

Benjamin said...

James, have you (or anyone else) heard what the original title was supposed to be? I just assumed that it was supposed to be "The Warded Man" because that's the term used in the book. Well, used in the US edition unless they changed that too.

Phil said...

Peter wrote about the title on his website (http://www.petervbrett.com/excisions/).

I agree with most of you, "The Warded Man" is more suited.

James said...

Benjamin: The Painted Man is the original title that Brett gave the novel. His US publishers changed it to The Warded Man, for whatever reason.

In the British version, the term 'Painted Man' is used throughout the story. In the US version, they use 'Warded Man' instead.

ediFanoB said...

First of all this is a debut novel and for me it is a remarkable one. Peter V Brett shows a talent to drag you into the story - slowly but surely. THE PAINTED MAN rose expectations to THE DESERT SPEAR. I look forward....

poldaly said...

I also thought it was an awesome book, there are some cliche's along the way, but this could be said of any book. I live in the UK, and know it as the Painted Man, which I would say is the best title! I suppose it's just what you're used to! Can't wait for the next installment and I'm also intrigued to know who's going to direct and take the main parts... any suggestions?