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.