Brett’s writing is simple, unpretentious, and action-packed. The Painted Man is a blend of a coming-of-age tale, a monster-violence thriller and a speculation on human nature. When Brett switches from Arlen’s viewpoint and demonstrates that there is more to the story than the standard fantasy fare (a country bumpkin goes on a quest to learn magic and save the world) I know I’ll stay till the end. Although the fast-paced action is often bloody and the body-count is high, it is not slasher-fiction and so does not appal with gore. The writing doesn’t challenge the reader much—it doesn’t need to—it simply sweeps you along with the story.
Arlen, Leesha, Rojer: they are characterised so strongly and memorably that when we return to Arlen after a long break in the narrative, I can picture him immediately, sitting in his ward-circle. Full marks on characterisation. The three character arcs are very different stories that come together in a rollicking climax. The occasional flimsy plot mechanism weakens the spell, but the vigour of the storytelling pushes you into the new action. There are gems of wisdom that brighten the tale and increase the authenticity of the characters. By spanning many years in the character’s lives, Brett makes me feel really connected with them because I feel I’ve known them for a long time.
The question that drives the story forward so well is: how does fear make people behave? That’s what interested me throughout the book, watching the characters grapple with their fear and coming up with responses that defined their humanity. Because there is this interesting subtext, I’m engaged and want to see further examples of well-considered observations of human nature under pressure. It is a simple recipe: Brett forms charismatic leads and places various character types around them in conflict situations. This was fun to watch.
The concept of the wards and the way the knowledge of them has become scattered and lost is a great idea. You begin to feel that you must learn wards or you’ll be dead soon, so it becomes a vital lore. That the user gains power through their use is also a nice twist—usually mages are limited by something, but Arlen has great potential: only the lack of knowledge of wards seems to limit him.
Wards I wasn’t so sure about:
The premise, that bloodthirsty demons rule humanity with fear and would condemn us to become a fractured medieval society is believable, IF you can get past the demons rising insubstantially from the ground and solidifying into rabid monsters. The way the demons sank into the earth and rose again seemed unbelievable to me, I couldn’t shake the feeling they were Monty Python cardboard cut-out demons wobbling back into their slot in the stage. I’m too rational to be left without some science to justify the existence of the monsters. Doesn’t have to be true science, just believable.
The setting is nothing new and will be familiar to Terry Brooks readers (at whom the book is marketed)—a post apocalyptic world that has slipped back into a medieval existence with technology and the knowledge of it lost in the flames. It is a bit unlikely that none of the modern technology survives. Nonetheless, the historical link to the present day helps me to relate to the setting, so it’s easier to believe.
Wards that didn’t work for me:
Leesha’s story has so much sexual posturing that it becomes a little tiresome. Although it is believable that everyone would be obsessed with reproducing because humanity is clinging on to survival, it conflicts with the conservative attitudes within the villages—I think Brett could have pushed the boat out a bit further here on how the culture would change under such extreme survival conditions, given that it develops from the present day. There were also too many ‘narrow escapes’ where undefended humans dodge hungry rabid monsters. They would have been chomped.
The Painted Man has a flaming good concept and is great fun to read. It doesn’t have the mind-dazzling awe-inspiring impact I need for 5 stars, but it’s a solid 4 and I look forward to reading The Desert Spear. Arlen is definitely a mage to watch. I’m practising my ward-work now, just in case the demons come. You never know.