Genre: Epic Fantasy
Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication Date: March 10, 2009
Author Website: Peter V. Brett
Author Blog: Peephole in my Skull
Enter The Warded Man. Known as The Painted Man in the UK, this stunning new novel takes epic fantasy and adds new twists to a standardized subgenre. Debut author Peter V. Brett has written a tale about three young people and their quest to return humanity to its rightful place on top of nature’s pyramid. In the world of The Warded Man, demons prowl the night. Rising from the ground at dusk, they do not disappear until the dawn. Humanity can only protect itself and its possessions by hiding behind painted wards, symbols carved or written on their homes. These “corelings” are part of the natural world and take the form of flame, stone, wood, water and wind. But they are extremely deadly, and any encounter with them is almost certain death. But mankind is slowly dwindling, as each night more and more corelings get through the wards and kill off more people. But humanity does nothing but cower, hoping that one day a Deliverer out of legend will come.
Arlen is young boy, raised on a farm, who loses his family to the corelings. Forced onto the road, he manages to make his way to one of the few cities that remain. The circumstances of his leave him with a profound hatred of the corelings, and a desire to wreak vengeance on them – to see humanity freed from the shackles the demons have put on them. Leesha is a young girl, near to womanhood, who is being abused by her mother and mistreated by the boy to whom she is betrothed. Rojer was disfigured at a very young age by corelings, but he wants nothing more from life than to become a Jongleur, an entertainer who travels from village to village, braving the dangers of the night.
The primary story is Arlen’s. We are not even introduced to Leesha and Rojer till much later in the book, and although they play a large role in the final battle of the novel, theirs is not the driving force of the story. It is Arlen’s desire for revenge, for some way to get back at the corelings, which provides the motivation of the story.
Brett is a spectacular writer. He writes unhurriedly, building his story and characters piece by piece, but he never lacks for action or human interest. Arlen is a character every young boy wants to be, strong and brave and willing to fight for what he believes. As the reader watches him grow and change into a man out of legend, the reader will become thoroughly invested. The dangers of the night keep the level of suspense high for the entire book. As each night falls the reader is left to wonder if the protagonists will survive. It is an edge-of-your seat sort of excitement, and Brett maintains that suspense level, without feeling the need to top previous encounters with an even more exciting one.
If the novel has anything against it, it comes from the fact that most of the story is character development. Like many large series or planned trilogies, The Warded Man takes its time in building a consistent world populated by interesting characters. This means that there are no grand scale epic battles (even the final one only concerns a small village) where armies march against each other. The world is not changed, nor are the problems of the world solved in this story. That is left for later books. No, The Warded Man is about its three heroes, and their personal struggles to become something more than society would make of them.
And too, the story is filled with the standard tropes of fantasy. The uniqueness of the story is in the concept of the wards, and the value of the tale is in the deft writing, but there are no surprises or new frontiers crossed in The Warded Man. The story even has the standard rape of the female protagonist, something that is rapidly becoming part and parcel with any epic fantasy with female heroines. Not that Brett doesn’t write it well, or use it effectively, but there are other ways of creating life changing events for women, which was something Brett had done quite well earlier in the novel.
The story is also not heavy on description. The way the corelings look is not clearly defined, but is simply left to the reader’s imagination. For some readers this will be great, allowing their imaginations to run wild, others may dislike the fact that not even the wards are clearly described by Brett. The specifics are left to the imagination. That is not to say that the book is unclear in any way, Brett just does not spend inordinate amounts of time describing what the reader sees, preferring instead to use his words to look in to the minds of the characters and relate the events and action.
For those who dislike novels that are about primarily characters and their personal problems will not likely enjoy this novel. It draws comparisons to novels like Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World (not the later novels), Karen Miller’s Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology or Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy. Fans of early Terry Brooks, David Eddings, or Patrick Rothfuss will thoroughly enjoy this book. In many ways, it is a throwback to the epic fantasy of the late 80’s and early 90’s when many of the series that are held up as being the best of the subgenre were first begun.
I can see why Del Rey wants to promote this book to highschoolers. Although it has some intimate material, the problems of these young teens becoming adults will resonate with the modern teen. Arlen lacks respect for a cowardly father; Leesha is beautiful and suffers at the hands of men who want to posses her, but who care nothing for her as a person. Additionally, she wishes to keep herself pure for her true love, and this is hard in society that praises men for bedding women, and then shuns the women who give in. Rojer, the least developed character, wants to overcome his infirmity and become something great. His character will likely play a much greater role in future books, as his jealousy of Arlen deepens. Young men and women will relate to these characters, and although some of the material is a little more adult than I would prefer for a highschooler, the novel is a good starting point for discussing some of the things that trouble the minds of today’s teenagers.
I cannot recommend The Warded Man highly enough. It is thoroughly entertaining, having the right mix of suspense, action and introspection. It never bogs down for any of its length, as Brett paces the story masterfully. The world itself and the concept of the wards make the story unique among epic fantasies. The tale ends on a note of expectation, making me eager to read the second book, The Desert Spear, to find out what happens. The Warded Man is truly unputdownable. Make sure you have plenty of time for reading it, because you will not want to leave its pages for anything.