The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett came out in 2008 in the UK (as The Painted Man) and 2009 in North America. It’s the first of the Demon Cycle. Yes, there are spoilers.
This fantasy takes place in world that once had the age of science but something happened and demons from the core (of the world) materialized every night, bent on destroying humans. Small villages and hamlets use wards on posts and homes that keep the corelings at bay. Everyone knows how to ward, but some are better than ever. If a ward is drawn wrong, or gets marred, it leaves a way in for the corelings to destroy everything. Larger towns have warded boardwalks so one can cautiously get place to place but pretty much the night is owned by the corelings.
The “free” cities are encircled by huge stone walls, with the streets lined with stone. Everything is warded with sigils by the guild of warders, and demons rarely get in. But still people only very carefully venture into the night. This leads to an isolated society, where travel more than a day is difficult and people must ask for succor in another place before the sun goes down. The centuries of isolation has lead to various places jealously guarding the wards they use, as opposed to sharing. News and merchandise must still get from town to town and this is left to Messengers and Jongleurs. The jongleurs bring the news and tales and a respite from the terror, with their songs and acrobatics. The Messengers are combinations of merchant, knight and postman and hardened souls used to the vagaries of the night world. They carry portable ward circles, warded shields, weaponry and a host of scars.
The elemental air, rock, wood, sand, water and fire demons. While the wind corelings seemed similar to pterodactyls they are terrifying creatures of nightmare. The story begins with eleven-year-old Arlen, a good warder who witnesses the coring of his mother. The subsequent search for healing lead him on a journey to one of the free cities where he apprentices as a warder and messenger. Over ten years pass in the span of Arlen’s life as he hones his skills, faces betrayals and alienates himself from humankind in his relentless search for the old battle wards and artifacts, and his vengeance against the demons.
Leesha is a young girl, unjustly marred by a braggart fiance and spiteful mother. She apprentices to the extremely old, cranky and mean herb gatherer Bruna. Leesha’s gains independence and eventually travels to help neighboring towns. But she runs into her own hardships and terror when she returns to help her village and the Warded Man rescues her and Rojer.
Rojer lost his family at a young age and was raised by a drunkard jongleur. With his damaged half hand he’s never very good at juggling but is a passable acrobat and plays a mean fiddle. On the road with his master they meet calamity and then Rojer meets Leesha. He has found that the sound of his fiddle can repel the demons and Leesha knows how to make a burning liquid that can injure the previously thought indestructible demons.
While these two have their own threads as they grow and learn their strengths and fears, Arlen is the main focus.He ends up in desert city Krasia, the only place where they actively fight to repel the demons. Arlen hopes to pass on his discoveries of the battle wards but is betrayed by a culture where he is considered an outsider.
Overall I found the story engaging and it kept me reading. The action is clear, but I would have preferred descriptions of the characters to come more as part of the story as opposed to exposition. But the exposition is light. Most of the logic for the warding works. Demons can’t go through stone but can go through wood. The wards have to be in a circle to work on buildings, but you can repel with a ward on an object such as a shield. The battle wards were lost because the demons had been expunged and people forgot. I just don’t quite see how three centuries can go by where people put wards on shields but never put them on swords or spears.
There are two aspects I disliked about this book; one is endemic in many medieval fantasies. Game of Thrones suffers from it as well, even if Aria and Brienneare are exceptions. But they are exceptions in a patriarchal world where women are still chattels and brood mares and expected to be good and silent wives. In many cases, these worlds are styled on our own history, if given different trappings such as species, magic or geography. But I’m getting heartily sick of the role of women always being virgin, mother, whore or sacred warrior (Joan of Arc anyone?). In this way it’s still a man’s world. While Leesha and Bruna are strong women, they don’t step outside the traditional roles. If exploring a patriarchy and the liberation of women was the goal, then this would have been more acceptable.
The other aspect I really hated was the Krasians. They’re a desert nation who put no god before the Creator and the Deliverer is his prophet, where their women are veiled head to foot and outsiders are considered dirt. They eat figs and dates and dress in baggy pants. Medieval Middle East, with not even a veil to disguise it. At this point I threw up my hands. Do terrorists always have to be Middle Eastern? Yes, there are plenty of white-skinned bad guys in this book, but the thin veneer of our world’s cultures made me sigh in exasperation. I knew what the second book was going to be about. The betraying Krasians steal the magic spear and decide to take over the world, delivering people from demons but changing them into believers of the new faith. And the Warded Man must stop the holy war.
I find it annoying to have our world with just a touch of different icing for fantasies. I liked the book well enough and the overall premise of battling these corelings, but I don’t think it went far enough. I’d be tempted to read the second book but I’m not dying to. I saw enough of this world to feel I had a complete story. I’d give The Painted Man three and a half wards.