The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett
The Painted Man is the debut novel of Peter V. Brett, the first in the ‘Demon Cycle.’ It’s always fun starting a new series, and structurally this novel reminds me a lot of The Eye of the World, the debut novel in the ‘Wheel of Time’ series. It’s a lot darker though, going places that many other authors are fearful to tread. Sometimes Brett handles this well, but sometimes it’s rather clumsily handled. This is a debut novel however, and is still enjoyable despite being fairly rough around the edges.
The Painted Man takes place in world on the decline, known as Thesa. Once a place of great magic and science, for the past three hundred years almost all of this creation has been undone by the ‘Core.’ Every night, elemental demons known as ‘Corelings’ rise from the ground to wreak havoc on the surface. The only thing that can hold them back are magical ‘wards’, which can be etched into any surface. This isn’t a perfect art however, and sometimes these fail. This novel follows three protagonists, Arlen, Leesha and Rojer from childhood through to adulthood. Arlen flees his village following a coreling attack to become a ‘Messenger’, those intrepid souls who roam between towns and villages. Leesha is a young woman who becomes a ‘Herb Gatherer’, a healer, as well as getting caught up in the small town politics of her home village. Rojer is a young man who, after his parents are killed by demons, is trained as a ‘Jongleur’, essentially a jester. Although initially separate, these three characters are drawn together towards a common destiny.
The world of The Painted Man has some truly tantalising elements to it, particularly regarding their scientifically advanced ancient past. A society which faces nightly demon attacks will naturally develop some idiosyncrasies, and Brett does a good job of presenting varied and interesting responses to their nightly war. The ‘Krasian’ people of the south, who fight the demons rather than hide from them, are interesting, but let down by an all too obvious comparison to Islam in their custom. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with basing fantasy people of real peoples, if anything it’s sometimes the only way to create a compelling fictional society, but there must be a clear distinction, and these patriarchal warrior priests who force their women to cover themselves in veils and robes seems uncomfortably close to a Fox News vision of Islam. Although there is obviously a kernel of truth to this depiction, there is always more nuance in reality than the media necessarily depict, and The Painted Man fails to convey this nuance. It’s perfectly possible that future novels will improve this; Brett’s worldbuilding shows promise, but it’s rough.
The three part plot structure works well, with all three characters feeling distinct and interesting. I never felt annoyed to be dragged away from Arlen, the main lead, probably because the plot was still balanced mostly towards him. I disliked the way that the ‘Wheel of Time’ novels abandoned its main character Rand al’Thor, and I really hope that it doesn’t go this way with Arlen in future novels in the series. The novel keeps up a good pace, with nothing that felt like padding.
Brett is an extremely competent writer, with the odd irritation likely coming down to poor editing. He writes in a plain style familiar to fans of fantasy, fairly characterless but he has plenty of time to develop a signature narrative voice. Like Brandon Sanderson, he particularly sparkles in dialogue, as well as having a clear knack for fight scenes. In a series about fighting demons, an ability to create good fight scenes is a must, and Brett manages admirably.
The characterisation is generally good, although a few of the characters fall too easily into fantasy archetypes. I enjoyed the character of Leesha, particularly her wry wit, but her penchant for bursting into tears at every moment of difficulty made me somewhat weary. The supporting cast are interesting, some undermining the clichés that we’ve gotten used to and others reinforcing them. One of the most interesting characters is Jardir, a Krasian warrior, who only appears briefly but apparently plays a bigger role in the sequel.
All in all, The Painted Man is an enjoyable read, if not a particularly revolutionary one. Some authors immediately hooked me, such as Patrick Rothfuss and Stephen Erikson, but it’s not uncommon for the debut release to have little effect on me to then become hooked on later novels. Elantris didn’t do much for me, but Brandon Sanderson ended up being one of my favourite authors. There’s much better fantasy out there, but if you just fancy a light, fun action packed read, you could do a lot worse than The Painted Man.