The Painted Man

I mentioned in a recent post that I’d stolen time away from my Nano novel to read The Painted Man by Peter V Brett. If you like fantasy you have to read this. Especially if, like me, you’re sick to death of the run-of-the-mill garden-variety fantasy. As in: farm boy discovers he’s actually the lost heir to the throne/the world’s most powerful magician/saviour of the universe/(d) all of the above, goes on a quest and jaunts around the countryside meeting elves and dwarves, often with a mismatched crew of companions, till the book has been dragged out to sufficiently humungous length. May or may not involve dragons. Or – God forbid! – prophecies.

Or else it’s all kings and princes and constant battles. Sieges galore, political machinations, rise and fall of empires, yada yada yada.

Well, I’ve read a million of ’em, so I’m always desperately searching for something different. I might have missed this one, because a cursory glance had me thinking it was horror and not my cup of tea. I kept seeing the blurb on the Voyager site that begins: “Mankind has ceded the night to the corelings: demons that rise up out of the ground each day at dusk, killing and destroying at will until dawn, when the sun banishes them back to the Core. As darkness falls, the world’s few surviving humans hide behind magical wards, praying that the magic will see them through another night.”

But then I stumbled on Brett’s blog, and found he was a debut author. Reading back through his entries I followed his journey to publication, the bidding wars and overseas sales, and became intrigued. If everyone who read the manuscript wanted to publish it, it must be something special, right? (And besides, he seems like such a nice, regular guy and his baby’s really cute.)

So I read it, and okay, there was a farmboy. But he too, was such a regular guy — so real — that I became engrossed in his story and didn’t even consider till I’d finished the book that it had started with the dreaded farmboy motif. Because this one didn’t have any magnificent lost heritage or amazing hidden powers to make him “special”. He was an ordinary person doing the best he could to face and overcome his fears and by doing so became a true hero. He earned it, instead of having it handed to him on a plate (no “we know you thought you were a lowly scullery lad/farm boy/whatever, but actually you’re the long-lost king’s son – here, have a sword and the hand of the princess”).

The book spends a lot of time developing its main characters, so you feel you really know them. They’re real, not just fantasy stereotypes. They have real problems, involving complex relationships, which build and snowball into bigger problems till they achieve “saving the world” size.

And then there’s the demons. Loved the demons! The whole worldbuilding, with scattered remnants of civilisation, the nightly assaults of the corelings and the wards that hold them at bay, was brilliant. So fresh and original. Not a dragon, elf or dwarf in sight. No magic swords, magicians, embittered mercenaries or royalty, deposed or otherwise. Just the grinding menace night after night, ordinary lives lived in constant fear and the effect that has on individuals and society as a whole.

Great storytelling. It’s one of those books you want to stay up all night to finish because you can’t bear to put it down. Probably not the best choice of reading material when you’re in the middle of Nano. Comparing my ugly first draft to this made me feel even more inadequate than usual. But I can’t wait to see where he takes the story. There were some intriguing developments towards the end that have me hanging out for the next instalment, The Desert Spear. I really hope it lives up to the promise of the first volume. It’s so good to see someone breaking new ground in fantasy.

Now I’ve just got to figure out a way to do it myself!

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