Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review of The Painted/Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

All right, I'll start with the title.  This book is called The Painted Man in the UK and The Warded Man in the US.  Since I knew Brett is American, I was all ready to say this is just as stupid and pointless a title change as many American versions of British books and films (the first Harry Potter, for instance).

However, it appears the book was actually published first in the UK, followed by a US edition the next year.  I've no idea if The Warded Man was a change by the publishers or reverting to Brett's original choice; but whatever, it's a far superior title, in my opinion.  The concept of wards and warding is absolutely central to the book, whereas painted isn't even accurate ― he's actually tattooed.

Whatever it's called, I enjoyed this book, with only a few reservations.  It's set in a kind of post-apocalyptic world ― but not our world, and not our idea of an apocalypse.  This is a world in which demons live in the "Core" and can rise to the surface at night, slaughtering the weaker humans.  These "corelings" were defeated long ago, and the world appears to have reached a fairly advanced technological state.

Three hundred years before the book's action, though, the corelings returned suddenly, devastating an unprepared world.  The only people who survived were those able to use the ancient magic wards, by which their houses or city walls could repel the nightly demon attacks.  Now, the whole culture is built around the need for protection against corelings.

The story covers about 13 years, during which three young people grow to maturity, following the three trades that lie somewhat outside the norm.  Arlen, a boy who believes passionately that it should be possible to fight back against the demons, learns to be a Messenger, those who brave the open countryside to link together the scattered communities.  Leesha is apprenticed as a Herb Gatherer, the healers (always female) who've preserved some of the knowledge from old times.  And Rojer, orphaned as a toddler, becomes a Jongleur, the itinerant entertainers who keep the ancient stories alive.

Gradually, each finds a way, within their own discipline to fight back against the corelings, and by the last section, they've met and combined their strengths.  Will it be enough, though, against an apparently undefeatable enemy?

The three leads are each engaging people in their different ways, but perhaps the book's greatest strength is the world it shows us.  This is a culture which, in some ways, resembles the traditional European village life that's the mainstay of epic fantasy, but the differences are telling.  Perhaps the most obvious is that life is lived from sunrise to sunset.  No gathering in the village pub for the evening ― it would be death to be out after dark.

Brett follows up each of the ways in which the demon threat forces society into a unique shape, and shows us how these enter the collective psyche.  The most important single activity is maintaining the wards on the houses, and a husband carries his new bride over the wards of their house, not over its threshold.  The language itself reflects it ― the standard curse is night! and to be killed by corelings is to be cored.  Even the cure for a hangover that we'd called the hair of the dog that bit me is expressed as a claw from the demon that cored me.

It's not a perfect novel.  The balance between the three leads is often lopsided ― at one point, Leesha makes no appearance for well over a hundred pages ― and I occasionally found the omniscient POV annoying, although much of the time it's well handled.

Most of the controversy about this book has been about the desert realm of Krasia, which Arlen visits during the third of the four sections, and which the sequel, The Desert Spear, seems to concentrate on.  It's very easy to see this as a thinly disguised version of Arab culture and, though much of this is inevitable (desert cultures are bound to have certain things in common), there's some justification in this view.  Certainly, their fanaticism and their attitude to women seem to reflect the standard western concept of Arabic/Islamic culture.

On the other hand, Brett's picture is neither all negative nor as much a caricature as some similar cases (C.S. Lewis's Calormen, for instance).  The militant martyrdom ideal, which is given an exaggerated and very negative profile in western portrayal of Islam, is treated much more sympathetically here, since it's aimed exclusively against demons.

Nevertheless, it's not the most comfortable part of the story, and I'm aware that some people who've loved the first book have hated the second.  I'll make up my own mind, of course, when I read it.  A third book, The Daylight War, has just been published, and at least two more are due in the future.  Based on the first book, I'm looking forward to reading them.


  1. Sounds good. Makes me think of Barbara Hambly's The Dark. I'll look out for it.

  2. Well, that's a comprehensive review, Nyki. It gives a great overview of the alternative world. Intriguing, but just close enough to our version of reality that it resonates. It would be interesting to find out what else Peter Brett has written, and whether it is similar or vastly different from this world.