On a distant world, night is the dark time for the guttering, flickering remnants of human civilization, in more ways than simply the setting of the sun. Every night, demons called corelings rise out of the ground, demons intent on feasting upon the remaining humans. Reduced from a once great civilization to some few communities huddling against the darkness, the slow erosion of humanity from the face of the earth seems inevitable. Even wards, the magical symbols that can hold the corelings at bay, are not enough, since they are made and mismade by the hands of man.
The rise and growth to maturity of several very different people may be the key to humanity finally taking a stand against its long time and implacable enemy, if prejudices, conflicts and struggles for power both old and new do not eliminate that possibility altogether. The candle flame holding against the darkness wavers, but whether it bursts into full fulminating flower or is completely extinguished, is in the hands of a new generation of heroes.
The Warded Man (The Painted Man in the UK) is the debut novel of Peter V. Brett and the first in his Demon Cycle series.
The Warded Man focuses on three major characters, and in a series of inter-cut scenes leaping forward in time, allows us to see how they grow, are tested and forged into the people they are. Arlen is our titular character, and is in many ways his story. A devastating attack on his village leads to his desire to change the perilous status quo. This is the catalyst that drives the events of the novel, and subsequent novels as well. The herb gatherer Leesha finds herself on the path of lost knowledge and wisdom in the wake of a more personal set of problems and conflicts, rather than a direct conflict with the corelings. Rojer, himself a tragic survivor of the corelings, too, finds that he has a special skill with music that may be a weapon against the corelings, too.
Although we get to see these three characters grow from children to adults, one of the strongest things about the book is also a drawback. We get to see how these three characters grow and are forged into relatively familiar tropes. The loner fighter, keeping all at arm’s length, with a grim determination to win at any cost. The wise woman learning the secret lore of the past. And the musician, bard character who is forced to be on his own rather than in his guild. Allowing us to see how they become these familiar tropes does help take the sting away that they ARE familiar. The character study and conflicts in the novel are a highlight of the author’s writing, and for all that the corelings are an abiding threat to humanity, it is the interpersonal human conflicts, wants and needs that drive the plot and action.
This is not to say the corelings are simply a metaphor or backdrop for the interpersonal conflicts. They are indeed a danger to the remaining communities of Man. While having humanity threatened by an external force is nothing new, the corelings, their strengths, weaknesses, modus operandi and relationship to humanity are new and fresh. What I particularly liked is that the “points of light” of humanity all have very different ways of surviving against a nightly assault on their lives, in terms of their use of wards, weaponry and general outlook on the problem. It does feel, as we get intimations and some background, that the responses to the demon onslaught are accretions based on jury-rigged local solutions. I am reminded of the 4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons setting, with communities here and there across the land, separated by considerable distance, reacting in very different ways to a hostile environment.
While things can and do go dark in the novel, with the author not shying away from bad things happening to his characters. there are fun touches of humor, too, including a minor character clearly based on an infamous character from The Dukes of Hazzard TV show.
The major weaknesses are a matter of plotting and the hazards of a first novel in a series. The series of events that bring the major characters together feel a little too carefully put together. The tumblers of the lock fall into place a little too neatly that way. In addition, this novel doesn’t stand very well on its own. The novel clearly is a bridge and an opening gambit to a larger series, without quite having a epicycle of a single complete story of its own.
It’s a bold debut, and it is no wonder that with it, Brett established himself in Epic Fantasy circles very quickly indeed. Its a pure hit of epic fantasy both familiar, iconic and bog-standard, and yet has strong innovation and foregrounding in character and world development that make this feel extremely fresh and stand head and shoulders from novels in similar territory.