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The Painted Man (Demon Trilogy 1) by Peter Brett
Review by John Berlyne
HarperVoyager Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780007276134
Date: 01 September 2008 List Price £14.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

Uncorrected Proof Copy: A major release from HarperCollins Voyager set to be reaching book stores in September. The Painted Man is a début novel from American Writer Peter Brett and marks the opening of the Demon Trilogy, a fantasy sequence that "... echoes Feist's brilliant pacing, Hobb's elegant characterization and Martin's brutal unpredictability."

Voyager are shining a lot of light on this release, issuing advanced proofs well ahead of publication and this indicates the importance they are attaching to Brett's work. A quick look at the author's web site reveals that the novel will be issued in the US by Del Rey under the title The Warded Man (scheduled for Jan 09) and also that the book has already sold into Russia, Germany, Greece, France and Japan. Something tells me we'll be hearing a lot more about this one over the course of the year and - being the sucker for hype that am! - I can't wait to get to grips with it.

The central conceit of Peter V. Brett's very likeable debut fantasy, The Painted Man, is a simple and effective one –- his is a world where the scary monsters come out at night –- every night. With this concrete notion providing the bedrock of his story, Brett is able to create a world filled with fear and tension, with magic and mayhem and the result is a very satisfying read indeed.

Each evening as night creeps in, a mist rises from the ground and coalesces into shrieking, flesh hungry demons who ravage the land. The demons are elemental, some formed from fire, some from rock, others from water or wood, but each is a savage thing intent on feasting on human flesh. All through the land, in the cities and in the far flung hamlets, the darkness brings terror. Only magical wards protect the inhabitants, daubed in haste on doors or warding posts, for the demons are repelled by these symbols. Often though, they break through to wreak havoc and The Painted Man opens on exactly such a scene, the aftermath of a night's slaughter. Here we meet our first protagonist, a young boy named Arlen, as he joins with his community in the clean-up.

There is a preponderance of exposition early in Brett's novel as he seeks to convey background to the reader. Early chapters are heavily infodumped, with characters often guilty of breaking the "As you know, Bob…" rule. Thus Brett quickly shades in the political backdrop to this world of city states, each vying with each other for trade goods and alliance. He also offers up a medievalist setting, in which (along with the ward magics) we have herb lore, wandering minstrels and messengers being essential elements. These messengers are heroic archetypes, essentially acting as liaisons between the big cities and their outlying rural communities. At the start of The Painted Man, Brett conveys the messengers as little more than elevated mailmen, but as the novel develops, their standing seems to grow to the point where they are more like diplomats, wealthy officials, heralds, negotiators, demon-slayers, and Indiana Jones-type adventurers. This loose character mapping does not present too much of a problem for the reader, for as the glamour of the messengers grows, so does their attraction and so it makes perfect sense that young Arlen aspires to join their ranks.

Fleeing his village following another terrifying attack and an argument with his father, Arlen falls foul of the demons along the road and is saved from death by a messenger who takes him to the city. Once there Arlen embarks upon the adventure which will see him become the eponymous painted man -- a mythical and magical figure, covered from head to foot in ancient wards and able to fight the demons with a violence and intent that matches their own.

Alongside Arlen's story, Brett runs the tales of two other protagonists -- a young woman, Leesha, who becomes a healer, and Rojer, apprentice to a drunk and over-the-hill jongleur. Both will end up with their fates inextricably linked to that of the Painted Man, and though they are engaging for sure, Brett handles these two parallel plot lines a little unevenly, choosing to keep them as supporting roles to the main story of Arlen's development. Consequently as the novel progresses, the plotting becomes looser and less disciplined –- events get squashed together and timeline slightly distorted.

Additionally, there are places where Brett boldly describes horrific scenes of death and violence and others where the text feels sanitised, tempered to ensure that no reader be offended or excluded –- signs of a writer still striving to decide where exactly he wants to pitch his work? In spite of these teething niggles, The Painted Man is a very accomplished debut fantasy, broad in its scope if not exactly ground-breaking, but without doubt exciting, and with exceptionally well-rendered characters -- the fate of whom the reader cares very much about. How the fight against demonkind will develop, I cannot guess, but I will most certainly be visiting Peter V Brett's misty and murky world to find out.

Recommended.

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