Book review: The Painted Man, by Peter V Brett
Thus continues my summer of catching up on my reading, especially those (mostly epic) fantasies that came out a while ago…
The Painted Man tells the stories of three exceptional young people—Arlen, Leesha and Rojer—growing up in a world where demons rise from the earth’s core every night and try to kill humans. The only things that can keep the demons back are wards: painted or carved symbols. Arlen has a talent for drawing wards and wants to become a Messenger (one of the couriers who defy the demons, travelling from town to town); Leesha is a skilled herbalist; and Rojer’s music has an Orpheus-like effect on the demons. Their stories run in parallel for most of the book until they meet up towards the end.
What drew me in with this book was the combination of voice and pacing. The opening is suitably tense and intriguing, and the voice strongly colloquial (albeit Brett is a bit too fond of his said-bookisms: characters don’t just say or ask; they explain, comment, confirm and use all those other unnecessary verbs to prop up their dialogue). However it was good to encounter a non-industrial civilisation that, despite its mentions of dukes and such, was not a third-hand impression of a European medieval world but in fact felt far more redolent of the American Frontier. Which brings me onto the worldbuilding…
There are some solid aspects to the worldbuilding, and others not so solid. The core premise (ha!) is a very strong one, permitting a straightforward conflict that’s pretty black-and-white in its morality. The demons exist only to kill humans, as far as one can see, and so killing them is morally unambiguous. Also, whilst the cultures we visit are misogynistic to some degree or other, unlike many such fantasy worlds it does at least make sense given the setting; the death rate is so high that motherhood is vital to the communities’ survival and women must be protected at all costs. Brett even manages to balance the sexism a little by having mothers highly revered in Thesa, to the point where one duke’s advisory council consists entirely of grannies!
On the other hand, we have the Krasians who, despite allegedly being based on a number of cultures, come across as way too closely modelled on Arabs/Muslims, and not in a good way. Also his trade networks feel more like video game mechanics than a realistically designed world. The mines of Miln (a single mine, it makes pretty clear) produce coal, metal and gems, and whilst I’m no geologist, this doesn’t sound entirely plausible to me. Meanwhile the aforementioned Krasians trade their silks and spices. From their city in the desert. Surely the limited amount of land encompassed by the warded walls is required for growing food, not luxuries such as mulberry trees? The Arabs of our medieval world were traders, but their spices came from India and further afield; there’s no indication that this is the case with Krasia.
These gripes aside, I was generally enjoying the book until fairly near the end, when for no good reason Leesha is gang-raped on her way back to her home village. In some ways it’s not very distressing, because Brett skips over the event itself and says little about it from Leesha’s PoV, though we get flashes of horrified memory from Rojer’s PoV (he’s now travelling with Leesha), and the rapists do at least get what’s coming to them eventually. However the event feels entirely gratuitous and unnecessary to the plot, because Leesha and Rojer are also robbed by the bandit-rapists and must try to survive a night outdoors without wards or weapons, but are saved from certain death at the last moment by the mysterious Painted Man. Worse still, barely a couple of days after the rape, Leesha comes on to the Painted Man (who is of course Arlen). WTF? I feel like Brett had done a workmanlike job up to this point, and then he throws it all away with a very tired cliché and a total lack of empathy with his female character.
For the most part this was a good, fast-paced read (it only took me about a week), let down by some carelessness and clunky prose. However I’m left in two minds about picking up the second one, since I know it features the Krasians rather heavily…
Bluffer’s tip: The Painted Man was actually the original title chosen by Brett, but his US publishers didn’t like it so they changed it to The Warded Man