Published in the US in 2009, Peter V. Brett’s debut novel The Warded Man (titled The Painted Man in the UK and elsewhere) was released to broad acclaim, considered one of the best debut novels in years. I’ve become somewhat cautious about epic fantasy in recent years. I have less time to read than I once did and I fear, perhaps irrationally, getting bogged down in a mediocre series that the completist in me will feel obligated to finish. I often find myself waiting until the hubbub dies down before reading a well-received book. It avoids the possibility of being caught up in fan fervor (which I am vulnerable to when it comes to fantasy), and I find I am able to keep a more level head that way.
When I finally picked up The Warded Man, I had no preconceptions of it, which meant I had accomplished my goal of avoiding hype. What I found was a strong, if flawed debut novel that strikes a refreshing balance between the classic elements of fantasy and the newer, darker trend the subgenre is currently riding.
The world Brett introduces us to with this first novel in a series of as-yet-undetermined length (the sequel, The Desert Spear, was published in 2010) is, like the work as a whole, a balance between the new and the familiar. Every night, as darkness falls, demons rise up from the Core to infest the world and attack humankind. People live behind warded homes and within warded circles, relying on ancient glyphs of power they do not fully understand to protect them. It has been centuries since humanity fought the demons with any numbers, and their increasing fear of demonkind has resulted in a sort of dark age where people huddle in warded hamlets and walled cities. Few travel abroad or are even caught outdoors at night. Peasants and dukes alike are helpless against the demons, and the wards and secrets their distant ancestors used to fight them are lost to myth.
The narrative of The Warded Man is tightly structured, split between three viewpoint characters: Rojer, a Jongleur, Leesha, an Herb Gatherer, and Arlen, who becomes the titular Warded Man. (This is admittedly a minor spoiler, but it’s fairly obvious from very early in the book that Arlen will go on to rediscover old knowledge and abilities, and a discussion of the book’s plot without it is difficult). The first half of the book follows the youth and adolescence of the three main characters, each of whom endure tragedy at the hands of demons and humans alike. The characters are well-drawn and well-developed, and restricting the narrative to three well-defined points of view creates a good balance between focused characterization and breadth of plot.
Content-wise, Brett manages to find an equilibrium between the PG tone of most classic epic fantasy and the decidedly adult stuff of contemporary writers like George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie. The bad guys are monsters, so the majority of the book’s violence is fantasy violence, spattered in demon goo rather than blood. Unlike the artificial prudishness of work by Brandon Sanderson or Terry Brooks, however, there is sex, described concisely and well, and the characters use real swears occasionally, though like so many other epic fantasies the cursewords are made-up: “To the Core with it!”
The book benefits from the author’s decision to divide the story into chronological sections. Brett is adept at zooming in on relevant periods while skipping over the innocuous. While other authors get caught up in “building” periods, allowing the story to drag through developmental scenes and dwelling on the build-up to the real story, Brett cuts to the chase. This is a rare gift in a subgenre filled with novels that are allowed all too often to run overlong. While some might argue that the first half of the book is in fact one big build-up, I disagree. The introduction and rising action allows the author to develop his characters organically, following them through the most formative years of their lives and making the reader familiar with their unique motivations for deciding to lead the fight against an enemy that all others fear. The characters’ individual journeys are the story here. They satisfy in and of themselves, rather than serving a climax.
Which brings us to the flaws of The Warded Man. The climax of the book is predictable and cliched. There’s no other way to put it. Daring, uncompromising man of action inspires stubborn villagers to conquer their fears and overcome their parochial limitations to do battle against a terrible enemy despite overwhelming odds. Villagers turn out to be resilient, capable opponents to the enemy and win a great victory. Villagers begin to view the man of action as their leader and savior. Change Arlen’s name to Perrin and Cutter’s Hollow to The Two Rivers, and you could insert the Battle of Cutter’s Hollow directly into The Shadow Rising, Book Four of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.
Despite the solidity of the characters, the dialogue is mediocre at best. Good dialogue seems to be the last thing to come to burgeoning writers. Here, Brett more often tells than shows: characters are apt to describe their feelings and intentions outright, an unrealistic trait and ultimately just another type of expository lump. The writing itself is competent but forgettable. Brett gets no points for style.
These flaws do not hold the novel back too much, however, and I found the reading experience positive on the whole. To appreciate The Warded Man is to appreciate its balance: half classic adventure epic, half newfangled character-driven romp. I was entertained, and I look forward to reading the sequel. As a debut, in particular, The Warded Man is very strong. Should Brett continue to improve as a writer, and should his world continue to prove as unique and engaging as his characters, he will be a force to be reckoned with in fantasy.