The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the first book of the Demon Cycle series.
“This book is an exercise in how simplicity can be a rewarding experience in a genre that is increasingly populated by highly complex and twisted characters and settings.” ~The Founding Fields
The Painted Man is one of the books I’m reading this year as part of my “25-in-13” reading challenge, wherein I attempt to catch up with a number of popular authors who are all the rage these days, and some whose work can only be termed as classics of the SFF genres. While I’ve attempted to stay abreast of current trends in the industry with my reading since January last year, I’m still woefully behind compared to several of my fellow reviewers and other friends who have been reading many of the authors on that list above since their books first came out, and recommend these books quite highly. I finished Bradley P. Beaulieu’s The Winds of Khalakovo last night and am on T. C. McCarthy’s Germline right now, after which I’ll roughly be on track to complete the challenge by the end of the year. Fun times.
Anyways, on to the review of this book.
Throughout my reading of The Painted Man, one thought stuck with me: the prose is rather simple, the setting itself is simple to quite a degree, and so are the characters. There is nuance in everything, of that I can assure you, but this is still a very by-the-numbers novel. And I did not mind that all, because as I said in the logline above, the current trend in SFF is to write and publish all these incredibly complex novels with a huge cast of characters and convoluted plots. Such novels don’t make for all that much of an enjoyable reading experience because as the reader, you are always trying to follow along and not miss anything. Brett’s first novel avoids all of that.
The charm of the novel is that it avoids complexities. It has specific foci and it largely sticks to these foci without getting side-tracked into unnecessary side-plots and characters.
There are three major characters in the novel. The first is Arlen, a farm boy who eventually becomes a Messenger, traveling between the various cities of the known world, delivering letters and collecting tithes. The second is Leesha, a young girl who goes from being destined to be little more than a housewife into a healer and lore-keeper. The third is the much younger Rojer, who becomes a jongleur – combination bard and jester. Of the three, Arlen and Leesha are the ones who end up being the primary leads, with Rojer largely relegated to side plots or comic relief when the story arcs for the other two get incredibly serious. His inclusion in the novel is odd because his arc ultimately goes nowhere, even though the character has an incredible amount of potential early on, as one of two survivors of a coreling (demon) attack on his village as a young boy and taken in by a celebrated jongleur.
Arlen is a familiar character in that he is that typical nobody character at the start who grows and develops into someone with power and takes center stage in a fight between good and evil. His journey is the most interesting since he carries a lot of the narrative weight on his shoulders and is the driving force for events that conclude towards the end of the novel, and that will follow on from there for the sequel. While I enjoyed the character a fair bit, especially when he learns how to fight the corelings and starts to become a stronger character, I would have liked to see more of him over the course of the book. The time-jumps in the book take away from the emotional connect with him, and given the vast span of time that these jumps cover, it’s not that easy to sympathise with him. Another thing is that while his character development leaves a lasting impression, his narrative itself doesn’t. The reason for that is that he comes into contact with a huge number of side characters and none of them are able to develop a lasting impression on him, or on the reader. The time-jumps mean that these characters are introduce and they advance his narrative to a greater or lesser degree, and then they are just discarded. Would have been nice to have had some sort of flashbacks to these characters, or even get some tiny mentions of them in the later stages of the narrative.
Leesha’s arc in comparison is a far more personal experience and much more enjoyable as well, barring two extremely jarring moments towards the end. She starts off as another nobody character, someone who is an average village girl with nothing all that remarkable about her. And then Brett shows her dealing with verbal abuse from her mother, standing up to a jealous, lying boyfriend, and becoming the apprentice to her village Herb Gatherer Bruna, who also doubles up as a lore keeper of sorts. Given everything that happens with her in the novel, she is the most sympathetic character and I think that Brett had a really good handle on her for the most part. There was a particular gravitas to her character that both Arlen and Rojer lacked.
Towards the end however, I think Brett changed his mind about how he wanted to portray her. [Spoiler] In an off-screen scene involving Leesha and Rojer going to her village (they have lived for a number of years now in one of the Free Cities and just recently met), Leesha is violently raped by highwaymen and Rojer is severely beaten up. I think he too was sexually assaulted, as that’s the impression I got from the narrative. This whole affair jarred because of two things. One, Leesha is a virgin till now (some fifteen years or so after we first meet her) and she is waiting for someone to fall in love before she gives up that part herself. Having that taken away from her off screen doesn’t sit well with me at all. It’s just too shocking and seems to happen for just the hell of it. And then she becomes a bit obsessive about having sex with Arlen. There’s very little romance in the whole affair and it’s all about her desperation to get it over with. And second, Brett doesn’t really explore the consequences of this event with respect to Rojer, or how Arlen and Leesha’s relationship affects him, as he has been infatuated with her for a while now, despite Leesha being several years his senior. These two portrayals towards the end are my biggest criticisms of the book.
The world-building that Brett does over the course of the novel is quite remarkable, despite all the familiar tropes that he uses, and the relationships that he sets up between the separate factions. The corelings make for some fantastic enemies, and any scene involving them is a major plus point of The Painted Man. The Krasians, as the only people who still actively fight these demons, make for an excellent story element since there’s a very “die in a glorious last stand” aspect to their city culture. Certainly, given the ending of the novel, and the name of the second book, the Krasians are going to be very important and that’s just what I wanted.
The idea of using drawn wards, whether on weapons or buildings or chairs or streets or sands or whatever else the case is struck me as quite original. This is the source of a lot of the magic in the book, and I loved how Brett explores the concept, taking it to its inevitable conclusion with respect to Arlen’s character development and his status by the end of the novel. There could not be a better highlight in the novel.
The only element of Brett’s world-building that I did not appreciate was the status that most of the women characters in the novel were relegated to: objects of sex and child-bearers. Many of the village women that we see over the course of the novel are ready to take a tumble with the next man who comes along, irrespective of whether the women are married and have kids or not. Leesha’s mother Elona is always on her case about becoming a proper woman who can bear strong kids for her husband, and even when Leesha is out of her mother’s shadow, the concept still haunts her, contributing to her desire to remain a virgin until she finds the right kind of man to settle down with. I mean, come on. That’s not realistic at all, at least not for me. Such a dim portrayal makes for a big disconnect with the novel and mars the reading experience. I’m hoping that the sequel avoids such silliness. Just because these people live at the fringes of society should not mean that their sexual mores are so lax.
And finally, the pacing. The frequent time-jumps and the necessary background dumping that they lead to make for an inconsistency in the novel’s pacing, but by and large the narrative moves along quite smoothly. Brett definitely gets most of the story beats right and by the end, the novel proves to be quite a good read in almost all aspects. I never found the pacing to be all that problematic, and for a first novel that’s a major plus point.
Overall, I’d say that my experience with The Painted Man has been one that largely met my expectations. It’s a novel (and an author) lauded quite highly in the blogger/friend circles that I frequent and that always imparts a cynicism in me, where I’m wary of all the high praise, so I went into The Painted Man expecting a good, fast read, and that’s what I got. Hopefully I’ll be reading the second novel, The Desert Spear, quite soon.