Much like Ken Scholes, I discovered Peter V. Brett's debut novel The Warded Man through the Science Fiction Book Club. To be honest, I almost passed it by because the cover didn't grab me right off. But after a second look I was taken with the synopsis, as it vaguely mirrored an idea I had been playing with for a roleplaying campaign. Reading the book destroyed the campaign idea, because my ideas paled in comparison to the setting of Brett's engaging novel. By my reckoning, I came out ahead because both The Warded Man and its sequel, The Desert Spear, provided many hours of enjoyment. Throw in the Subterranean Press novels set in the world of the Demon Cycle along with the projected sequels and I have hit something like a book lovers lottery. I decided to only review The Warded Man in detail here, so as not to spoil the other entries in the series. But a review of The Desert Spear and the forthcoming The Daylight War are all but guaranteed.
The world of the Warded Man is a bleak and dangerous place. Through their own arrogance, humanity has fallen from power having lost a war against the demons of the Core, called corelings. The magic that had once allowed them to combat their monstrous enemies has been all but forgotten, save for the defensive wards that protect their homes at night when the corelings rise. Travel is too perilous for all but the bravest of souls. Cities of any size are few and most people live in small isolated communities afraid of the day when a ill-maintained or damaged ward fails, bringing horrible death at the hands of the savage corelings. Fear is a constant weight on the souls of the remnants of a once thriving civilization.
Brett has said in interviews that the effects of and reactions to fear was his intended theme for the book, and it is firmly entrenched in the setting. Travel, limited by the need to be beneath the protection of magic by dusk is perilous, generating the need for the Messengers. These men who live nomadic lives as they take the risks necessary to keep both commerce and trade alive, figure prominently in the story arc of one of our heroes.
Brett's trio of POV characters are young when we are introduced to them, placing The Warded Man in the coming of age category familiar to long time genre readers. Each of these characters is shaped by their choices when faced with things that frighten them and challenge their expectations for their lives. The first is Arlen Bales who is living the simple life of a farm boy in the small village of Tibbet's Brook. While he excels in painting the wards that protect against the corelings he is a prisoner to them. Even as a youth Arlen yearns for the freedom to travel far from the familiar confines of his isolated home than the nightly coreling attacks will allow. After a coreling attack leaves his mother at death's door while his father watches in terror from behind the protecting curtain of their wards, Arlen has a mission. He will not be a coward, he will learn how to bring the fight to the corelings even if it means leaving his old life behind.
We meet thirteen year old Leesha next. Her home life is bleak, with a verbally abusive mother and hen pecked father whom she loves dearly. Leesha expects her life will turn out like any other young woman who has come before her. She will marry and raise a family, helping to grow the struggling seed of humanity. But those plans are swiftly ended when her fiance starts a rumor that leaves her ridiculed and ostracized by her neighbors. Leesha finds a new path as an apprentice to the crusty village Herb Gatherer, Bruna, whose knowledge of nature gives her the ability to heal and to harm.
Rounding out the trio is Rojer. His story begins with his narrow escape from a coreling attack that leaves him an orphan at the tender age of three. He is rescued and raised as an apprentice by a jongleur, a travelling jester. Disfigured by the corelings, he lacks the dexterity for many of his master's tricks but shows remarkable talent with music, especially with the fiddle.
Brett makes use of a non-linear narrative, jumping not only from character to character but often skipping large chunks of time between each visit with our heroes. It was jarring at first, but most readers should adjust fairly quickly. This technique serves Brett well, allowing him to have his heroes connect at the end of the novel, without needing 1500 pages to get there.
On the way, we get the opportunity to witness the moments that prepare and propel each character into the sometimes reluctant heroes they seem destined to be. We follow Arlen from frightened yet determined boy to the titular warrior who finds a means to fight against the creatures who destroyed his family. Leesha faces the trials and victories of independance, as her spunk and intelligence help her find a place in the community that once spurned her. Rojer's journey is the most drastic, largely because of the amount of time covered. The young jongleur's apprentice discovers not only a magic all his own, but a secret that changes the trajectory of his life.
The pacing is steady, never running down the rabbit holes that seems to plague many epic fantasy novels. All of the events depicted seem to move the characters forward to the expected goal. The magic system fits nicely against the setting connecting in a way that makes perfect sense. The corelings are surprisingly varied in both their temperament and capabilities and Brett wisely leaves himself plenty of freedom to bring fresh ideas to the concept as the series continues.The corelings even manage to show some personality beyond the sterotypical predatory insinct especially in the cycle's subsequent volumes. Combat sequences are fluid, written in a way that hints at some first hand knowledge of the subject. Surprisingly there is not a sword fight in sight, and more martial arts sequences than most genre novels. The thing that struck me most about Brett's writing is that he had a fairly light touch especially considering The Warded Man is his first novel. I found myself too engrossed to bother with the critiquing that often happens when I read a fledgling author.
Making this accomplishment all the more impressive is the fact that much of Brett's novel seems like familiar territory. I have seen some critics who are put off by the numerous tropes that appear in the novel. But Brett uses the familiar to great effect, changing the flavors of your comfort food to a pleasingly different, but never jarring taste that will definitely leave most readers asking for seconds.
There have been many comparisons between Batman's origin and Arlen's story and and I find them pretty apt. In a sense, the Warded Man is meant to be a superhero, battling demons that have reduced humanity to a cowering shadow of their former glory. Brett goes for depth here, showing the sacrifices Arlen must make, and the heavy costs of his quest for the power and skill to reach his goals. Arlen's knowledge of those costs and the refreshing lack of stoicism in the face of his choices gives him a depth beyond the four-color variety.
There is the ever-present prophesy as well. The Deliverer will come and lead humanity against the Corelings. This prophesy is well handled and doesn't seem to come complete with plot armor. It is my opinion that this prophesy is born from a populace desperate for hope, rather than a magical destiny that happens to belong to our hero. Brett further subverts this trope in The Desert Spear, by placing this mantle on a unlikely character, adding a fresh twist on this common theme.
Brett introduces a nation of spear-wielding desert dwellers in the last third of the book that may look familiar to fans of the late Robert Jordan, but their culture, while familiar, is intrinsically linked to Brett's themes on fear and our reactions to it, viewing it from a cultural rather than a personal level. This also seems to be informed by Brett's personal reactions to September 11th tragedy. This theme is also subverted nicely later.
Brett's later entries into the series only continue to showcase his growing talent. What at first may have seemed like merely one man's take on what has come before is quickly growing into a tale which stands on those worthy stories' shoulders to shout a tale all its own. Speculation that Brett's greater story is posed to be the successor to epic fantasy greats like Jordan and Martin are not unfounded.