100 Books in 2011 Review: The Painted Man

I was excited to read The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett. There’s been a lot of buzz around it and I like the cover a lot.

There are three point-of-view characters; Arlen, Leesha and Rojer. We meet them when they are children and follow their stories through to their mid to late twenties. In the book demons come out at night and they can’t be fought, partly because they are so numerous, so humanity hides behind warded walls. But still, many people are lost to the demons, including the families of Arlen and Rojer. The damage done to Leesha is done by other people. After the formative events of their childhood are described, they each leave their home village in search of a way to fight what happened to them. Each finds they have special skills: Arlen learns to fight demons by tattooing wards on his body; Rojer can charm them with his fiddle and Leesha is a talented healer. Towards the end of the book, their paths converge and they fight a pitched battle against the demons.

This is a book with a theme. It’s about how people respond to fear and what it does to them. Which is a good theme, but it’s very obvious and sometimes it feels like the story takes a backseat. That’s a shame, because there’s a good story in here. Although I suspect it might be in the second book of the series. What this really felt like was backstory. Here are three characters who are going to form an amazing demon-fighting team who I think I would like to see ridding the world of demons, but I have to wait for a whole book while we set up their motivation.

Also, the worldbuilding is quite poor. At the level of detail, it’s ok. Villages and individual buildings feel quite solid. The problem is at the macro level. The various city-states of this world are one dimensional in terms of economy and culture. The latter is particularly problematic as the references to real-world culture are too clumsy. Here’s a city in the desert, so we’ll basically make them arabs but without any depth of understanding of arabic or Islamic culture. The other four cities are generic medieaval European templates. It all felt a bit paint-by-numbers. Not that this isn’t a fine tradition in fantasy, but getting the worldbuilding right is one of the elements that separates great fantasy from the rest.

Anything that get’s published has something about it; something that caught the imagination of an editor. So, what was it about this book? From the small biographical details available, I don’t believe that the answer is ‘connections in the industry’. It’s a debut novel, so we can rule out previous sales history. I think it comes down to story. I like the concept. It’s an interesting twist on the ‘farmboy becomes hero’ trope. I wanted to read what seems to have been held over to book 2. Perhaps reading the rest of the trilogy and viewing it in the whole will make more sense.

One thing to take away from this book is about making choices about what to show. For all of the characters the books covers fifteen years and so Brett has to choose which events he shows and which he summarises. He has to pick out a number of scenes and events that represent the formative experiences of the characters. I’m not sure I would have made the same decisions in all cases.

If you fancied reading this, then you might be better off skipping straight to the second book.

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