At the weekend, I finished reading the first book in the Demon Cycle by Peter V Brett, The Painted Man. This has been a book series that I’ve been thinking about getting into for a number of years now, as I kept seeing the beautiful covers on the shelves of my local Waterstones when browsing the fantasy section, but had always somehow held myself back. Well, no longer! I started reading the first early last week and, while it did take me a while to get into, as soon as I was there, I was absolutely hooked.
The first novel in any series like this is inevitably going to suffer from some pacing issues as the world is built up, though I must admit to being particularly impressed at the way the story almost seemed to know when it was beginning to lag, and picked itself up. At 544 pages, there is actually a lot of story packed in here, as we cover a period of about 14 years in the world of Thesa.
As ‘the Demon Cycle’ might suggest, the book is set in a world of magic and demons, where the people are plagued by nightly attacks from a nether world of demons referred to as the Core. The Corelings are split into a number of elemental types, fire demons and rock demons, etc, and rise up from below to terrorise humanity every single night. The humans manage to protect themselves through the use of magical wards which, when lined up correctly, form a protective barrier around their homes, though there is always the risk of these wards being somehow obscured, leading to the net to fail.
We follow three characters across the course of the book, though the trio don’t actually meet up until the final portion of the book, which can cause some disconcerting leaps in the narrative. We start with Arlen, who watches as his mother is killed by a demon, his father standing aside in fear as it happens. This causes a breakdown in the father-son relationship, and eventually prompts Arlen to flee from the little village of Tibbet’s Brook. He manages to survive in the wild by being particularly good at drawing wards, which impresses the messenger Ragen into taking him along to the free city of Miln. Messengers have something of an exotic appeal, as they spend days on the roads, defying the coreling attacks. Arlen wishes to become a messenger himself, but at first is apprenticed as a Warder, where he quickly makes a name for himself, though never losing sight of his ultimate goal.
Leesha is a young girl from Cutter’s Hollow, who seems to have her life planned out by her overbearing mother, though has a spark of something that makes her wish for something more. Quite by accident, she finds herself apprenticed to the herb gatherer Bruna, a crotchety old crone who teaches the girl everything she knows. Herb gatherers are the medicine-women of the world, though also guard the secrets of science that once held sway before the demons began their nightly war three centuries previous. Over the years of her apprenticeship, Leesha comes to learn much, and is eventually sent as a sort of exchange to the free city of Angiers to work in the hospit there.
Finally we have Rojer, a small boy who watches his parents killed in a coreling attack, but is saved by the jongleur Arrick, who takes him under his wing somewhat begrudgingly, and over the years teaches him the tricks of the entertainer’s trade. Rojer was maimed in the attack that killed his parents, losing two fingers, but nevertheless displays an aptitude for playing the fiddle, though any money he manages to make Arrick drinks away, and the two are forced from the city of Angiers to work around the villages and hamlets. While on the road, Arrick flies into a drunken rage and nearly gets Rojer killed, but manages to fend of the corelings long enough to save Rojer, who discovers that his music has a way of either hypnotising the demons with its calming melody, or else driving them off through discordant notes.
Arlen becomes a messenger, relishing the freedom it allows him, and using his time to search for lost treasures in long-ruined cities. While at one such ruin of Anoch Sun out in the Krasian desert, he discovers a tomb etched with many long-forgotten wards, along with a metal, warded spear. At the city of Krasia, where the men still fight the demons, Arlen joins them in their holy war, and his prowess with the spear does not go unnoticed by the first warrior of the city, Jardir, who betrays Arlen and takes the weapon. Arlen manages to return to Anoch Sun, and his mind begins to work over the idea of how the wards on the spear repelled the corelings. He paints offensive wards onto his hands, and the next night does battle with a sand demon, managing to kill it. Slowly, he begins to paint more of the wards onto his skin…
At Angiers, Rojer is badly beaten by a rival jongleur and ends up in Leesha’s hospit, where the two become friendly. However, news reaches her of a plague sweeping through her old home, and she leaves the city with Rojer pledging to help her on the road. They’re attacked not long after, and Leesha brutally gang-raped, but before the corelings can get them, the mysterious Painted Man appears to help. He accompanies them on the road, and the three slowly grow to bond, though when they reach Cutter’s Hollow, they find the village a shadow of its former self. Arlen, as the Painted Man, incites the villagers to fight the demons, and while the toll on the people is great, they manage to survive the night, fending back the demons for the first time in centuries. The people begin to look upon Arlen as the fabled Deliverer of myth as they rebuild their city in a warded defense pattern. However, there is another figure riding out of the desert claiming to be the Deliverer, wielding the warded spear from Anoch Sun…
This book is just fantastic!
While there are some moments that feel like Brett is trying to channel George RR Martin with his brutal depictions of corelings dismembering humans, there is actually a lot more to this book than one gruesome tableau after another. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of moments where I felt reviled (to say the least), and I thought the attack on Leesha and Rojer on the road was a bit too out of nowhere, but in the main, it’s the actual substance of the story that drives this book forward, and there is plenty of substance to be found here!
The magic in this book has a fairly sensible feel to it, and the story overall has a really grounded sense that makes me believe what is happening within the plot. Does that make sense? I mean, some fantasy novels are just that, with all manner of outlandish things going on. Here, there is a very clear sense of rules at play, and the world makes sense within that context. It’s always an important point for these kinds of books, but I have to say, it definitely succeeded there. There is also a highly developed sense of history within the book, and I found myself really interested in learning more about the fabled age of science, and of the ruins of Anoch Sun. Stuff like this gives the book real depth, and I hope we dive into that in the subsequent books in the series!
The three main characters of the book quickly established themselves in my affections, to the point where I found myself really rooting for them when things took a turn for the worse. The whole section with Arlen in Krasia I read in one sitting, as I just had to find out what happened next. Of the three, I think Arlen definitely came across as the most interesting, even though at times his constant need to be a free spirit did come over as a bit petulant-child-like. His willingness to fight the demons, and his transformation into the Painted Man of the title was an entirely believable character arc, and I can’t wait to find out where his story is going next!
Overall, this book is highly recommended!!