Reviewed by Stephen Aryan
The Painted Man is a fantasy novel by newcomer Peter V Brett, which has taken over the world. And by that I mean almost literally, as a world map on Brett’s website shows the dozens of countries it’s now available from. I am always keen to discover new authors, however I’m also very wary of hype. The more insistent someone is that a book is the best thing ever, the more zealous and insistent they are about pushing a copy into my hands, the more nervous I get. I’m also less likely to read it, at first anyway. The Painted Man, and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (which I will review soon) were two that I knew about but felt reluctant to approach. I finally received a copy last Christmas and picked it up from my To Read pile in late January 2010. I finished it a few days later.
On its surface it sounds like a well trodden path because of the theme – a young boy destined for greatness, but like Andrzej Sapkowski, Brett takes the familiar and makes it new. Arlen, the eleven year old, lives in a world where people have good reason to fear the night, because when darkness falls demons rise from the earth, from the Core, to devour humanity. They cannot be fought, cannot really be killed although some do try, and humanity takes refuge every night behind wards, magical symbols carved into buildings or on posts around the property. The wards act as a magical barrier which keeps the demons out but they don’t harm the demons in anyway. A lot of children fear the dark because of what might be out there, lurking in the shadows, and their imagination is often their own worse enemy. In this world fear of the dark is not something that’s limited to children, it’s a cold, hard, immutable fact that affects everyone. This means bravery is not what you might expect in the story and it is a theme that is explored in detail throughout.
In terms of world building and despite the mention of Free Cities, I had the impression that the world in which the story is set is very small. Travel is obviously difficult over long distances, because wards carved in the dirt can be swept away by wind or water demons at night. So whilst there is a map in the front of the book and mention of other cultures, it felt to me as if this was just one small corner of a world and that pockets of humanity might live for generations without ever knowing about other countries a few hundred miles away. This situation of ingrained fear in every human has affected trade and industry and it was at this point that I realised Brett had created something unique and intriguing. The real heroes in this world are the Messengers, people who deliver letters between the so-called Free Cities, as well as between towns and villages. Men who risk their lives to keep trade and communication going, so that no one is cut off and totally isolated. There are no powerful warriors of legend or wizards that fought the good fight and won. The only magic is the type that keeps the demons at bay, but it also keeps humanity in a prison.
This culture of fear come to haunt Arlen, and after suffering a significant loss at the hands of the demons, he embarks on what appears to be, at first, a foolish child’s dream of ridding humanity of its fear and the demons. There is talk and religious mutterings related to the demons, about them being punishment for man’s wickedness. There is talk of a prophecy of a Deliverer who will be sent to save everyone, but no one really believes anymore. Because once you’ve seen friends and relatives torn apart in front of you, it’s kind of hard to believe in much of anything. People don’t really live the kind of exciting lives you might expect to read about in a fantasy story, they survive.
Small communities rely on Messengers for news, but as the story moves out of Arlen’s village to one of the Free Cities, he realises they are not free and enlightened. They hide behind bigger walls and better wards, but still live in fear, whilst trying to give the impression of being cultured and more advanced than the so-called backward villages. But come nightfall, everyone regardless of their status or social standing will hide in their homes, trembling in the dark and waiting for the dawn.
Although the story starts with Arlen, and the two other characters Leesha and Rojer, as children, this is not a ten book epic series charting every moment of their lives to adulthood. We experience segments of their lives, the defining moments, before the story skips ahead a couple of years and we see the repercussion of their choices. Brett also doesn’t make things easy for his characters and he doesn’t shy away from unpleasantness, so although there is nothing too graphic, I wouldn’t say this was a book for younger fantasy readers as a lot is implied if not shown. A number of horrible incidents affect all three characters, and quite a few of them have nothing to do with the demons. The story is unpredictable and the good don’t always win and the righteous don’t always survive.
Brett’s style is clean and fairly simple. He doesn’t get too bogged down in detail and indeed on his website he talks about how he chopped out a lot of content in the editing, rewrote other sections and added new material, to keep the pace moving and most of all to keep it relevant. There are no giant paragraphs that demonstrate his world building ability and that’s a good thing for me. This isn’t a Dean Koontz style thriller where on every page someone is being chased or shot at, but nor is it a Robert Jordan style tome that has a cast of hundreds and (for me) far too much detail. This is a character driven story and there is enough meat so that you know the characters and the world in which they live, but do not have every single aspect described right down to the umpteenth detail. Comparisons to Gemmell are not unfair, as both he and Brett deal with similar themes in their books of bravery, both writers are focused on the people rather than showing you how clever they are, and both are gritty in their style, although Gemmell more so I would say.
So, should you believe the hype? This is definitely a very enjoyable read, it is certainly unique and once I got into it, I cared about the characters and found it difficult to put down. My only slight gripe is, I think I am going to enjoy the next book more in the trilogy. Why? Well, the title itself tells you something about where the story is going, so at times I was tempted to skip to get there, but stopped myself after the first 50 pages. Instead I took time to enjoy the journey rather than the destination, but with so many twists, right up to the end, I don’t know really know what the next book will be about and I can’t wait to find out.