Peter V. Brett, ‘The Painted Man’

Choosing a new fantasy novel from a library shelf is an odd business. It’s made simpler by the previously-discussed apparent reluctance of libraries to provide me with Volume One, thereby limiting my choice. But even on the odd occasion where I find a Volume One, I’m still more tentative than I used to be. I almost didn’t bother with this one, purely because it had a rave review from Terry Brooks on the cover (an author even my teenage self could spot as not worth a great deal of my time). But I liked the first few pages. It’s well-written: descriptions are creative, dialogue is generally believable and interesting, and thanks to the dialogue the characters are alive.

It’s helped by the fact that the premise is very promising. This is a world where darkness brings demons. Personally I’d quibble a bit with the choice of the word ‘demon’ – to me it implies a human-like intelligence. The things that rise out of the ground in this world are scary because they’re savage hungry monsters who want to rip you to pieces, and occasionally set fire to you in the process. (Digression: I’m always more scared by big monsters with claws and teeth than I am by mad evil people. When it comes to clenched-knuckle viewing, Jaws trumps Silence of the Lambs every time.)

So the people of this world are under constant threat, and rely for their protection on ‘wards’ – magical symbols which prevent the demons entering an area or building. It’s made clear that these symbols are vulnerable. Paint may fade or become scratched, and wards scratched into soil may be erased by a puff of wind. From the opening scene, which deals with what happens when wards fail, the reader is left in no doubt that the threat is serious, and that this society is limited by the threat it faces. The difficulty and danger of travelling further than can be covered in one day’s light limits both the economy and the dispersal of knowledge.

It’s all thought through, in terms of how this society can and cannot function, without the details being dwelt on in a way that would obscure the narrative. The story has three separate strands, following three protagonists from childhood into adulthood. This has pros and cons. The vividness of a child’s vision of events brings life to the story, and the fact that the children are learning about their own society allows the author to introduce the reader to the world without that seeming forced or patronising. However, just as biographies seem to me to lose a lot of their zest and detail when the subject reaches adulthood, so this story seems to lose its drive and flow a bit as its protagonists age.

A recurring theme in the book is the nature of courage: what can appear as brave and dogged resistance can, if you twist it around, be a cowardly acceptance of the status quo and a refusal to try and eradicate the threat. At the other extreme, a glory-loving society which honours death in battle can also be a society which is afraid of change and reluctant to face reality. The question of what people do when faced with danger to themselves and to others is explored in a way that encourages the reader to question what their own reactions would be.

Considering all that’s done well in this book, I’m a little puzzled as to why I’m not really moved to go out and search for the next instalment of the story. It may partly be because of a bit of a problem with reader expectations. The title of the story is ‘The Painted Man’. There’s a picture on the cover of a man with strange symbols all over his skin. Protective wards are introduced at the very beginning of the book. Given these facts, I don’t think it can be considered a spoiler if I mention that one of the three protagonists works out that you can paint wards on your skin to defeat the demons. By the time this occurs in the story, it’s almost anticlimactic, or at least inevitable. I was left with a sense of ‘OK, he’s managed that, now he’ll teach everyone how to defeat the demons and it’ll all be fine’. I’m sure there are perils and twists ahead, but a bit of a hint as to what they might be would have been useful for keeping me hooked.

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