Another of those fantasy books I bought on the spur of the moment, without prior information, and that I ended liking very much! Indeed, when I was in the UK in April, I bought a few books for my son in Fort William, of all places!, and The painted man by Peter Brett was one of them. My son got very enthusiastic about it and read it within a few days. Then kept asking about the sequel… (Note that the book strangely has an alternative title in the US, The warded man. With the same so-so cover. Why?! Because UK readers could not understand the word warded?! Because US readers would think The painted man was about American indians?!)
So I took the book with me to Guérande to see how good this was and I got hooked as well, finishing it in three days. The sequel, The Desert Spear, is already sitting on top of the to-read-pile! The central theme of the book(s) is a variation on the “fear of the dark” theme, when darkness is full of real dangers, also found in, e.g., Sanderson’s Mistborn series or Terry Goodkind’s (rather annoying) Wizzard’s First Rule or yet Barbara Hambly’s mosy enjoyable (if older) Darwatch trilogy. And, of course, the forerunner H.G. Wells’ Time Machine where morlocks feed upon elois… Not a very promising start, then, especially when the three main characters are three (pre-)teenagers embarking upon their own quest and of course doomed to meet at some point in the story. However, Brett manages to turn this classic in the genre into something different and highly gripping. One of the attractions of the story is that the demons (or corelings) that come out of the ground when the sun sets down are not described into painful details, only their deadly power matters and it seems so overwhelming that the notion of fighting them does not make sense, either to the inhabitants of this universe or to the reader. When one character, Arlen, decides to, nonetheless, it is a major surprise (mild spoiler warning!) that he survives the first night, the first month and then the whole book! Although there are several deus ex machina interventions to make this possible, the story flows rather nicely and Arlen turns into the major character in the book, Further, his growing powers against the night demons come at the price of distancing himself from the other people and (stronger spoiler warning!) getting more similar to the beings he obsessively pursues. Which is why the other characters are destined to meet him. And help him recover his humanity.
Of course, this is not a perfect book. Besides the recurrence of happenstance moments, some characters are too caricatural. For instance, as in several recent fantasy novels (Richard Morgan’s Cold Commands to just pick one!), one desert-related part of the world follows an Islamic-type culture that carries all the clichés about Muslim countries. This makes the book sounds quite ethno-centric, with the bigoted and superstitious but good at heart communities from the North getting the better part over the fanatic, sexists and untrustworthy denizens of the South. I am actually afraid the second volume The Desert Spear will see more of this simplistic opposition as the southern desert tribes start an invasion very much reminding me of the Muslim invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries… The female character, Leesha, is also rather inconsistent, from strong to weak to strong again, a flaw in the story, esp. against the much more coherent Arlen. But, all in all, this remains a terrific first book and many readers seem to have felt the same way from the mostly positive reviews on line. I am eagerly waiting to get my Desert Spear back so that I can read it!