Explaining my feelings about Peter V. Brett’s ‘The Painted Man’ makes me feel like I’ve developed a split personality. Brett’s debut novel is refreshingly innovative in the fantasy world, a genre that often feels offensively derivative. The premise, characters, and pacing of the first book in Brett’s ‘Demon Cycle’ series are on point. However, Brett’s work is marred in many ways by the conservative values Brett pushes on readers. Brett’s distinct sex-negativity can make parts of the book off-putting, preachy and at times laughably unsubtle. In a book that is otherwise one of the greatest works of fantasy I’ve read in a long time, it is exasperating that some things would resonate with me so well, and others would hit such a jarring discord.
What’s it about?
The bleak world of ‘The Painted Man’ introduces us to a world: Thesa, where humanity is at its lowest ebb. Reduced to cowering behind protective wards by night, the inhabitants of Thesa are next to helpless against demons or ‘corelings’ that rise from the centre of the earth come nightfall. Using multiple point-of-view characters and a plot that spans 15 years, Brett gives readers an understanding of the oppressive world where children have a real reason to fear the dark. Protagonist Arlen Bales, after experiencing the fearful and selfish nature of humanity first hand, comes to view the actions of his kin with contempt, fearfully hiding inside their warded shields nig
ht. Arlen dreams of a future where humanity might fight back against the demons like the heroes of a time near forgotten.
“The sun is setting on humanity” is an apt description of the meagre state of mankind in ‘The Painted Man’. As the reader is exposed to the world, one of the greatest strengths of Brett’s novel is seeing the lengths people have gone to, or the depths they’ve sunk to, in order to survive. What would ordinarily be harrowing becomes a study in human anthropology as readers become detached from the carnage; just like the characters; out of a sense of self-preservation. Character development i
s the book’s greatest strength. Using the 15-year plot span to its fullest, Brett builds upon his characters from childhood. Forging the three major POV characters in the inescapable demon fire of his world means that some characters are unrecognisable by the books conclusion. The three major characters are nuanced and flawed, which is at least some consolation for the fact that most of the secondary characters read as two-dimensional.
Regardless of the innovative premise and attention grabbing prose, ‘The Painted Man’ falls in parts due to its puritanical moral messages. Having characters spew puritanical sex-negative dogma would not be problematic or damage my view of the work at all. In fact, religious puritanism is as much a staple of the fantasy genre as swordplay and sorcery. Unfortunately, it isn’t an overzealous priest character barking about the dangers of pre-marital sex. It’s Brett’s personal voice screaming at the reader from the page. Nearly all the characters who engage in pre-marital sex are portrayed as a wicked, spiteful bullies while those who chose to ‘save’ themselves are the only likeable characters in the text. Brett’s approach to sexual morality gets oppressively frustrating considering it’s one of the book’s only flaws.
From a plot perspective, ‘The Painted Man’ is an innovative move in a genre that can often feel tired and overladen with cliché. Having the book cover 15 years makes for good pacing and believable character development. However, the book is stunted by its preachy morality and sex-negativity. With only one major complaint, I can confidently say that ‘The Painted Man’ is a nuanced, innovative work that is providing diversity within the fantasy genre.
The author is, to his credit, open to fan input and criticism. He regularly updates his blog Peephole In My Skull, with updates and reactions to fans and their interaction with his work.
Over-all I give ‘The Painted man’ 8/10.