Sometimes, there is very good reason to be afraid of the dark…
Arlen lives with his parents on their small farmstead, half a day’s ride from the isolated hamlet of Tibbet’s Brook. As dusk falls each evening, a mist rises from the ground promising death to any foolish enough to brave the coming darkness. For hungry demons materialize from the vapours to feed, and as the shadows lengthen, humanity is forced to take shelter behind magical wards and pray that their protection holds until the dawn.
But when Arlen’s world is shattered by the demon plague, he realizes that it is fear, rather than the monsters, which truly cripples humanity. Only by conquering their own terror can they ever hope to defeat the demons. Now Arlen must risk leaving the safety of his wards to discover a different path, and offer humanity a last, fleeting chance of survival.
This book wasn’t what I expected it to be. after reading some of the early reviews for The Desert Spear, book two in this series, I thought it would be far more ‘grittier’ and darker. Not that this book is all brightness and light, but it’s not as morally grey as for example Scott Lynch or Sam Sykes. What the book was, was a comfortable read, with some familiar fantasy tropes and some interesting new elements.
The familiar tropes had me a little worried at first. These concerns were mostly focused on Arlen and Leesha; here was Arlen, a farm boy from humble beginnings striking out into the world with a mission and Leesha, the beautiful, sweet almost too-good-to-be-true daughter of an abusive mother, who despite all of this does what is right. Add to this the sweet and talented orphan boy Rojer, who turns a little wild after losing his master, and the fact that there is a prophecy around in the book and I was worried. Would these archetypal characters and these tropes turn into clichés or would they be used to an original end?
Fortunately, the answer turned out to be the latter, to a degree. Yes, Arlen is archetypal but not disturbingly so. He has to fight to become what he wants to be and never thinks he is the prophesied Deliverer. Instead he strives to empower people to realise that they can all be their own Deliverers, which I really liked. I felt sympathetic to Rojer, but Leesha really was my favourite of the three. I loved that she got some spunk and stood up for herself and her relationship with Bruna was great. Even though I enjoyed the other two story arcs, I kept waiting to go back to Leesha. Her growth from the submissive, put-upon and put-down daughter, to a young woman who stands up for herself and knows her own worth was a pleasure to read, even though the theme was familiar.
An original element I truly liked was the demon aspect. They were true bogeymen, as they are confined to the dark; usually they keep to the night, but they can manifest during the day if it’s overcast enough or, presumably, in case of an eclipse. The wards used to protect against them are a sort of everyman’s magic. Anybody can learn them, most people learn at least some basic ones, but some people – like Arlen – have a aptitude for them, like other people have a talent for maths or singing. These become Warders and some of them become Messengers, people that travel between settlements and dare spend the night outdoors, only protected by their own wardings. I found the demons and the wards fascinating and I hope we’ll find out more about them in future books. Brett has written two novella’s, The Great Bazaar and Brayan’s Gold, published in the US by Subterranean Press in the US and I believe a UK deal is in the works (according to Brett’s blog) which tell stories of Arlen’s time as a Messenger, but hopefully The Desert Spear and The Daylight War will also shed some light.
The only really problematic passage in the book, for me, was the way the three characters were brought together. It wasn’t so much the robbery and Leesha getting raped, because that happens, unfortunately, even in real life, but the fact that not above three days later Leesha is almost bedding Arlen. That just seemed off to me. I can see how taking the initiative and making it her own choice, would be empowering and might give her back a feeling of control, but in so short a time span it just seemed wrong.
Beside that one snag and the reservations at the start, in the end The Painted Man was a very comfortable read. It reminded me of the way early Raymond E. Feist read for me, that same sort of classic epic fantasy. It may not have blown my mind the way other recent reads have, but I enjoyed it enough that I ordered the next book The Desert Spear before I even finished this book. I can’t wait to get started on that, as its reception was far more mixed than that of The Painted Man and it featured on a lot of last year’s ‘best of’-lists, so I’m keen to see how I will like it. So look out for a review of The Desert Spear in late February or early March as I’ve pre-ordered the paperback edition, which isn’t out till February 8th.