The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett – book review
A fantasy story as old as time: in the struggle between good and evil, a hero rises in the most desperate of times and… that was about it for the first volume of the Demon Cycle, but the way the plot unfolded made me have some pretty predictable expectations for what’s to come.
It goes a little bit like this: in ancient forgotten times, humans were at war with these demon-type creatures called “corelings” that came out at night and ravished everything and everyone. They learned that to defeat them, they’d have to use the magic of wards (basically, runes). As the demons were obliterated, humanity grew ignorant of magic. The corelings were soon swirled up by the vague whirlwind of myth and legend. Humans developed technology and basically became… what we are today, in the 21st century. Until one day, when the corelings came back, more powerful than ever. Only that this time people forgot about wards and their magic. And thus starts a new era.
The book takes place 300 years after the return of the demons, and humanity is completely subjugated, driven back into a primitive state. People stopped fighting and, in return, would hide in warded houses at night, which most times would prove ineffective. There are a few free cities (in pure fantasy fashion) completely warded from demons, but the rest of humanity lives in villages that become fewer and fewer by the night.
The plot follows the points of view of three main characters: Arden, Leesha and Rojer, who are yet to meet at the beginning of the novel. It starts with them as children, each living in their village and having their own origin story: Arden is set to put an end to the corelings after a tragic loss and begins his journey as an apprentice to one of the most notorious Messengers; Leesha lives in a very religious community and finds a passion for medicine, following the footsteps of Bruna, the old, wise woman of the bunch; and Rojer is trying to make a living as a jester after being adopted by an alcoholic jongleur.
In fact, the first novel is an origin story, and it skips through time so that we get to read about the three main characters from their pre-teen years to adulthood. This tactic is a double-edged sword: on one hand, we get accustomed to the cast and we begin to care about them, having followed them closely throughout their lives. It also makes for decent fan service moments when their stories intertwine. However, the skips in time are so drastic, that when some characters become completely overpowered, it comes off as unnatural and unfit for the world that has been described up until a certain point.
The world building was proper, but fell flat in comparison to more refined fantasies. It had a well-established magic system, complete with a good understanding of the corelings, the different cities and their cultures, the people and the customs to which their mindsets submit. However, for such a long book (700 pages in my edition), the world building is rudimentary, not at all fleshed out from a myriad of other epic fantasies that throw in a quasi-Arabic civilization and call it a day. There are moments in the book that had potential, and I wish the author insisted on them. But this is only the first book in the series, and, for Brett’s initial published fantasy, I can’t say it was bad.
There was one especially upsetting trope: the book was blatantly sexist, to the point where I couldn’t tell where the world building ended and the author’s own voice began. Besides the fact that Leesha completely lacks agency in a way that goes beyond characterization, the whole narrative was judgmental towards women, especially – God forbid! – the ones that were more in control of their bodies and sexuality. And, worst of all, there was a very unnecessary rape scene, with no emotional consequences to the character. It just happened for no reason, had no impact on the story – it might as well have not existed at all, the plot would’ve been the same – and was brushed off as if it never happened. Why, then, was it there? I’ll go as far as to say that it was offensive, especially in the light of what happened exactly after said rape. I won’t spoil you, but I found it incredible that that scene found its way into the novel.
This, combined with the complete lack of chemistry between the characters, was sometimes so cringey, to the point where I had to put the book down just to process what the hell I had just read.
On a more positive note, the plot is action-packed and, despite its length, The Painted Man makes for an easy read.
The writing style was bland and straight-forward, but I usually find that this works best for the genre, with some exceptions. It leaves room for characterization through dialogue, snappy and vivid fight scenes, and a quick pace. A more descriptive language would have worked here and there, but it still kept me engaged and made me flex my creative muscle by using my imagination where words would fail the representation.
Overall, the book is a solid first installment, as storytelling goes, and the stakes are high for book 2, by the way it ended. I neither loved it, nor completely hated it – it found its spot in an uncertain inbetween where I might come back to the series later just for a check-up. I hope the other novels are a bit more self-aware when it comes to female characters and their arcs.
Because of the more “problematic” bits I’ve discussed, I can’t personally fully recommend it. But it is light enough for a beginner fantasy reader or for a person who’s looking for a quick read to get them out of a reading slump. It’s dark, but not too dark; the characters are fun to follow, but not the best constructed; and the premise (although cliché at core) sets the reader up for more to expect, in an Attack On Titan type of twist on what seemed to be the mindless, purely evil villain.