Book Review: “The Painted Man” Peter V Brett

27May09

The Painted Man, Peter V Brett, Harper Voyager Paperback, ISBN 978-0-00-727614-1

Peter V Brett_The Painted Man

Arlen lives with his parents on their small farmstead, half a day’s ride from the isolated hamlet of Tibbet’s Brook. As dusk falls each evening, a mist rises from the ground promising death to any foolish enough to brave the coming darkness. For hungry demons materialise from the vapours to feed, and as the shadows lengthen, humanity is forced to take shelter behind magical wards and pray that their protection holds until dawn.

But when Arlen’s world is shattered by the demon plague, he realises that it is fear, rather than the monsters, which truly cripples humanity. Only by conquering their own terror can they ever hope to defeat the demons. Now Arlen must risk leaving the safety of his wards to discover a different path and offer humanity a last, fleeting chance of survival. 

I’ve been eager to read this book for some time now – it’s had so many fantastic reviews – so when I saw it in the bookshop, I grabbed it. I’m very pleased that I wasn’t disappointed, as so often happens with much-hyped stories.

This is a demon of a novel: it grabs you by the throat and pulls you in from the start, and spits you out at the end, exhausted and emotionally drained. I went through this novel in two evenings, with illicit, snatched readings in the intervening day whenever I got the chance – I couldn’t keep my mind out of it, and even now it’s still turning in my head. I might have to adopt a policy of not reading trilogies until all 3 books are published: to have to wait so long for the next book (already on pre-order) AND THEN THE FINALE is pure torture.

Brett has built a world so coherent and convincing, and a trio of characters – Arlen, Rojer and Leesha – who are both engaging and credible, so that the unfolding of their stories is as enthralling as an enchantment and as gripping as a boa constrictor. The writing is spare and stark and beautiful, and the descriptions enhance without ever overwhelming the action in the foreground: Brett makes every word of every scene work for its place, and the result is a wonderfully tight and compelling novel.

In this world, there is a very good reason to be afraid of the dark, and this is hammered home in the opening scene through the experiences of Arlen, a young boy intimately affected by the demons’ destruction of his community and his family. Through him, we acquire a sense of the dread and terror under which every human must live, the knowledge that in the dark, hope only extends as far as a good ward, and without one, death is certain, slow and terrible. This sense of fear underpins the entire novel, but it is drawn subtly, a deep, cold current inferred from the characters’ actions and so deep ingrained in their thoughts and behaviour that it is a constant. Only at the end are the seeds of change sown, with fear starting to turn to defiance and action against the demons. However, one gets the impression that this is only the beginning of the war, and that there are many more battles to be fought.

Those battles will not only be against demons.

The extra dimension here is that, despite the constant fear of demons, humankind is riven by political factions and the delicate balance of power between church and state, and between duchy and duchy, are under strain. The demons are killing humans faster than they can reproduce, and the economies of the duchies and states are starting to buckle under the strain. The ruling classes are looking to consolidate their own positions, with little care to the plight of common people, and the church preaches a doctrine of sin and punishment by demon plague, a puritanical and sometime hypocritical position that does little to lighten the burden of sorrow on the people to whom it ministers.

However, this church also delivers the prophesy of a deliverer, who will come to rid the world of demons and reinstate a peace and prosperity that has been long missing. Into this prophecy, Arlen’s decision to fight rather than flee unfolds. His position outside of society – one of the few willing to brave nights in the dark with no warded walls between himself and the demons – leads him to uncover what might be the salvation of humanity.  This puts him into opposition with the established church, who will either condemn him as an imposter or, worse (in his eyes), attempt to force him into the role of ‘Deliverer’.

It also runs counter to the beliefs and needs of  the ultra-religious Krasians who would rather see him dead than admit that the deliverer might arise from outside their clans. Their fanatical culture has strong Islamic overtones, and whilst the use of prejudiced, thinly-disguised stereotypical portrayals of traditional Islamic cultures as inherently evil/tyrannical in fantasy is not something I enjoy – it plays too much to the cheap seats in terms of ticking the box for an easily identifiable ‘evil empire’ that will both appeal to and strike a chord with a contemporary audience –  this one is more well-balanced than most and does make some attempt to demonstrate the effect of an absolute commitment to faith that makes the importance of the temporal world secondary to the hereafter. This dependence both drives and defines the Krasian’s outlook on life, and whilst it may have unpleasant cultural implications for non-warriors and those unable to achieve the perfection of faith, it nonetheless highlights the vacillations and hypocrises of the Northern kingdoms and places the Krasians in direct opposition to them – the more so at the end of the novel, which promises to expand the personal conflicts of this into a wider, political conflagration in the next.

Arlen’s single-mindedness contrasts well with the other major players in this story. Rojer is orphaned by a demon attack and subsequently brought up by a Jongleur (a jester, or bard) and follows in his trade. Leesha becomes an Herb Gatherer, a medicine woman, for her village after her mother and betrothed betray her trust. Both of these characters, again, exist outside of their society’s comforts, though they are important contributors to that same comfort, but neither of them posess the same certainties and determination as Arlen. Their quest for meaning and purpose both contrasts with and complements Arlen’s driven hunt, and when the three strands of their very different stories come together to make a single, satisfying whole, the result makes for a powerful, convincing finale to this story.

Like so many who have read this already, I loved this story. I am so excited about reading the next one, I can hardly bear to wait until August …

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2 Responses to “Book Review: “The Painted Man” Peter V Brett”


  1. 1 Peter V Brett :: Peephole In My Skull
  2. 2 Book Review – ‘Desert Spear’, Peter V Brett « A Mingled Yarn

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