Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Some books inspire, invigorate. Some books infuriate. The Painted Man does both. I simultaneously like and loathe this book, with its tired writing but interesting plot. Peter V. Brett manages to create a fascinating story about a world where demons manifest every night and the only protection is that of a warded circle/building. He explores how this would affect a pre-industrial society, the way it would shape travel and technology and career choices. I read this book very quickly, and finished it after reading well past my bedtime, because I was hooked. So I’m even more frustrated that I want not to like it, if that makes any sense.
I very nearly put the book down, because the first few chapters are syrupy-sweet fantasy in all its icky glory. Arlen just screams stereotypical farmboy hero Called to a greater destiny. When he saves his mother from a demon attack, berates his father for being a coward, and then runs away before he can be married off to a nearby farmgirl, convinced that he is "right" and everyone else is stupid, I groaned and wondered if I could survive such an unbearable protagonist. Then I remembered I’ve read The Sword of Truth, all ten of them, and this is nowhere near as bad as that. So I soldiered on. Fortunately, Brett introduces two other main characters: Leesha and Rojer. Both are insufferable in their own ways, but decreasingly so, and I find it much easier to sympathize with both of these characters. Leesha realizes there is more to the world than her village, and after a close and personal encounter with the female double standard, she hits the escape button as quickly as possible. Rojer loses his parents when he is a child and is raised by the man who left them to die, which would screw anyone up.
The characterization in general just feels off. All the minor characters are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, goodies and baddies who alternatively either help or hinder the protagonists in their development and aims. And it feels like all the conflict is, much like Arlen’s first outing, very stereotypically within the realm of the standard fantasy buffet: lose your parents, leave your village, learn you’re Special, slay a few monsters, become the Chosen One. For example, I want to feel horrible for the way Leesha’s mother abuses her and sides with her lying fiancee—but duplicity and cruelty are her mother’s only traits; she never displays a redeeming quality that creates enough complexity to make her character anything more than cardboard. This diminishes the sympathy I can feel for Leesha and makes the conflict feel less like a challenge and more like a perfunctory box on a checklist: "abusive mother who doesn’t believe in my self-worth", check.
I wasn’t a fan of the portrayal of the female characters in general. The continuing decimation of the human population has placed a greater emphasis on reproduction than there was even prior to that; motherhood is virtually regarded as a sacred duty. So there are very few women in this book who are not all, "I want the babies nao, plz". And I get that there is a plot-related reason. But it seems like motherhood-mode is the default lens through which the various women n this book get viewed. This includes Leesha, who is otherwise a somewhat well-rounded female character. To be fair, it seems like Brett is trying to capture the hegemonic power relations inherent in this kind of agrarian society beset by nightly demon attacks. Yet this is where his characterization talent lets him down, because the effort comes off shallower than was probably intended.
Case in point: near the end of the book, Leesha, who is a virgin at this point, gets raped by bandits. She’s a little shaken by this, and one might expect her to continue to avoid male attention as she had been doing up until that point. But no, she instead has sex with the next guy she meets. I might be wrong, but it seems unrealistic that someone who has lost her virginity to a rapist would, by the next day, be eager to get naked and muddy with a tattooed guy she has just met and beg him to put a baby in her. However, I am not a woman and, indeed, like everyone else on the Internet, I have not actually met any, so take my incredulity with a grain of salt. I might be making mole mansions out of molehills.
I could spend plenty of paragraphs finding more fault with the characterization, but I’ll stop here because I think it’s getting tedious and repetitive, and I’d like to say some good things about The Painted Man. The plot of the book partially redeems itself—it certainly kept me reading, despite my reservations about the people involved. At times it was painfully predictable; it was pretty obvious from the second chapter or so that Arlen was going to be the second coming of this Deliverer dude, that he’d find some fighting wards and walk around killing demons. Yet Brett’s portrayal of this transformation, and particularly Arlen’s struggle with the moral dimension to it, is very compelling. In particular, I loved Arlen’s decision to consume demon flesh and the revelation, a little later in the book, that fighting demons has super-charged him to the point where he is feeling the same attraction towards the Core that the demons do at the end of every night. I’d be interested to see where Brett takes this, if I read the sequel.
I’m on the fence about continuing the series. Though I want to know what happens next, I’m not sure if I’m willing to subject myself to the writing again. In many way, The Painted Man reminds me of an L.E. Modesitt, Jr. story: flat characters and somewhat predictable plot, but a stupidly enjoyable story. Brett clearly has some exciting stories up his sleeve, and The Painted Man showcases his incredible imagination. Though it hews closely to the traditional ideas about fantasy literature settings and character roles, this is one of the most original fantasy stories I’ve read in the past few years. I just wish that the writing itself held up in the same way. Alas, I am torn over my mixed reaction to this book. You’ll just have to make up your own mind.