The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett
I’ve often said that employing the usual fantasy tropes in a novel isn’t an automatic sign of poor writing; it’s what you do with them that matters. Witness the three main characters in Peter Brett’s The Warded Man: a young boy leaving his small hamlet for the larger world, a young girl trying to maintain her independent nature, a young orphan who must make his own way in the world. Anyone seen these before? Anyone? Buehler?
Luckily for us readers, however, Peter Brett does in fact know what to do with them, sharpening the standard character types with a depth of characterization that makes us care about what happens to them, and setting them in an original, often tense, plot.
The world Peter Brett creates is one that once saw an age of magic, followed by an age of science, and, following the fall of science, an age of demons or “corelings.” Long, long ago the corelings (called such because they rise from the core through the ground at night) nearly wiped out humanity, which was saved by The Deliverer and the discovery of magical wards, both offensive and defensive. The offensive wards have long been lost and now humanity (in this part of the world at least) ekes out a rough-hewn existence in a few heavily fortified and warded cities and a host of small hamlets that are linked by brave Messengers who dare the night. People work in this medieval setting by day, then cower in their ward-protected homes at night. Despite the wards, the corelings are often able to pick off handfuls of people and sometimes more, so humanity is gradually declining in numbers.
The Warded Man opens with the aftermath of a successful coreling attack on young Arlen’s hamlet. Subsequent events quickly serve to separate Arlen from his parents and his town as he vows to find a way to fight the corelings, rather than follow the usual cowardly behavior, as exemplified (he believes) by his father. Arlen sets his sights on becoming a Messenger, and along the way he is quasi-adopted by one such Messenger and his wife, learns to be a Warder (one especially talented at painting varied effective wards), meets the love of his young life, travels to nearly all the cities (including the only one whose people do not cower but fight the demons nightly despite taking horrendous losses), and finds a way to battle the demons (the title means you can figure this one out well beforehand).
Meanwhile, Leesha, a young independent woman of another hamlet, starts to learn the ways of healing as a Gatherer, apprenticed first to her local healer, then to another healer in one of the cities. And finally there is Rojer, who after his parents are killed and his hand maimed by corelings, is adopted by a jongleur (an entertainer, some of whom travel with Messengers). Eventually, as one can imagine, the three story lines come together as one.
The world, while generally familiar in fantasy, is fascinating in its details, with its back history of both magic and science, the sharply delineated worlds of safety and danger, the heavily fortified cities surrounded by more dangerous villages. The same is true of the demons, familiar in type (ravening, dangerous, etc.) but more compelling in detail: fire demons, wind demons, sand demons. Even better, the demons become more complex and thus compelling as the story continues, leaving the more simplistic “demons bad, very bad” behind and opening up lots of questions. I can’t say the details are all that thorough: Peter Brett gives us what we need when we need it, and the scene details are often vivid, but I personally wouldn’t have minded even more detail on the demons’ appearance and the wards’ visuals. And of course, my customary “would it kill you to provide a map” gripe.
The characters, while standard type, are mostly sharply drawn, with Leesha the most-so and Rojer the least-so. Rather than give us the standard by-the-numbers coming of age story, Peter Brett does a nice job avoiding that trap and quickening the pace by smoothly jumping months and years at a time, giving us punctuated looks at the characters’ development rather than day-by-day, gradual and predictable movement. We’re given more than enough detail to fill in the blanks ourselves — a method more authors should consider. I also liked how rather than simply give us characters with fully-formed arbitrary personalities, the author shows us (with Leesha and Arlen) young people who are reacting specifically to the people in their lives, with both turning purposely away from the paths exemplified by their parents — Leesha her mom and Arlen his father. I did think there were a few times the characterization slipped in the last quarter of the book, with a few abrupt shifts that could have used a slower evolution and more explanation (I won’t go into detail to save plot points). Side characters vary, with several very sharply drawn vivid creations, such as Leesha’s teacher and the three major adults in Arlen’s life in the city, while others, mostly quite minor save one or two, are more of the fill-in-the-usual-role type characters.
The plot is consistently compelling through nearly all of the book, with good pacing and many tense moments. As with the characterization, I felt the plot weakened a bit around the three-quarter mark, though not for too long. I was more than pleased by the ending.
The ending has both a sense of resolution and a cliffhanger, though the book’s pace and focus on character development clearly tells the reader this is not going to be a single volume story, so nobody should be upset about that cliffhanger. It also opens up some really large questions in terms of plot and theme, rather than just offer up the usual “the hero’s in dire straits” scene, a la Batman TV episodes circa 1967 (for you young’uns, that’s pre-Bale, pre-Clooney, pre-Kilmer, pre-Keaton).
All in all, The Warded Man was a compelling read, one I wanted to finish off in a single reading and one that left me eagerly awaiting the sequel. Highly recommended.
Excellent book and a spot on review, Bill. There were a few gaps in the plot where characters changed significantly but the details of how are missing. Plus, there is a culture in the book that is blatantly copied from Middle Eastern desert tribes in every way. Not very original but no big deal in the grand scheme of the story. Can’t wait to read The Desert Spear.
You certainly make me want to read this book! Thanks for this review.