- TITLE: The Warded Man (The Demon Cycle #1)
- AUTHOR: Peter V. Brett
- PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager (UK)
- PUBLICATION DATE: 1st September 2008 (UK)
- RATING: ★★★★★
After a stint of YA fantasy, broken up only by Anne Lyle’s historical fantasy The Merchant of Dreams and Jim Butcher’s fourteenth Dresden instalment, I was hankering for some good old epic fantasy on Boxing Day, and feeling fairly glum about the fact that it felt as though my shelves yielded nothing much. Then, I remembered that I had a copy of The Warded Man sitting there, recalled reading criticism online that it was ‘too much like epic fantasy’ and thought, “That’s the book, then!”
I don’t remember where I read that interpretation of the book, but I know for certain that we were not reading the same novel. The Warded Man is a sterling example of “neoclassical” fantasy that makes the old new and tackles the new without any hint of condescension towards the classic SFF from which it is drawn.
There is nothing wrong with classic fantasy. Indeed, I think there isn’t nearly enough classic fantasy out there. Too many writers feel a pressure that isn’t really there to create something wholly and completely new; something that leaves behind the roots of fantasy and forgets where it came from. But when books like The Warded Man come along, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel that reminds me that neoclassical SFF is a thing and that it does exist.
Writers like Brett seem to understand that, even if only on a subconscious level as they weave the tapestry of their worlds. Brett’s is a rich and complex world with enough resonance to feel utterly at home, yet new enough and flecked with enough references to ‘old science’ to sow seeds of an image of another ‘Earth’ regrowing on the other side of the destruction of its populous and culture. In the wake of both demons that rise from its Core and the destructive lust of humankind for power, blood and war, the world of Ala hangs in the balance and one tip either way could seal its downfall.
But this isn’t another one of those “let’s save the world” epic fantasy stories: it is more than that. Its characters make it so. Real, strong and likeable characters of both genders, without any self-conscious presentation of what a “strong female” or a “rounded male” translates as, populate the world and make it turn.
There is no pretence of writing Leesha Paper to be an archetype of how women with strength and agency strive, love, live or hurt. She simply is. The same is said for any other character in the book: there is no agenda here, only that of writing a damn good story. Arlen Bales isn’t “just another farm boy”: he is a flawed and imperfect young man who has seen hurt and let it shape him. He has let fear shape him and continues to do so.
Each and every character is a person and that’s what writing character is all about. It is rare to read a fantasy story with such good characters (and it shouldn’t be, really, but hey, is kind of is) but The Warded Man is a shining example of how it is done.
Ala is a world plagued by demons (corelings), and whether divine in nature or otherwise, the human population is in serious trouble. It was done once, when the Deliverer united men and pushed demonkind back beneath the surface through which they rise in misty forms to become solid and prowl the shadows every night. Only the sun hurts them and daylight seems scarce when reduced to cowering behind painted, carved and stylised wards to live through the night.
Arlen has had enough of the cowardice of his elders and despite his too-few summers, he is determined that things will change. Making the first step is the easy part; it’s the stopping that grows more difficult with each passing day. His former life behind him, the hurt still fresh enough to burn, Arlen shuns the daylight world and sets his sights on the night and how to kill it. Already skilled at warding and aching to become a Messenger, Arlen’s sights are set high.
Leesha, too, is dissatisfied with her lot in life: her mother would wed her to the boy to whom she’s promised, and though she cares for Gared, something always seem off-centre in Leesha’s small world. The village is all well and good, but the long road the Messengers and their Jongleurs walk to the city calls to her. With either a life raising children with the village giant or a budding apprenticeship with the village Herb Gatherer presenting themselves as her only choices, Leesha must decide if she would rather walk the path less travelled, or heed her mother’s admonishments about getting with child and making herself useful. To Leesha, it’s a tough choice but she’s stubborn enough and after being bitten once, she refuses to let the darkness of the world dampen her trust and hope.
But the world is a dark place, darker still in the hearts of men than the heartless demons, and when Rojer Inn could realise just how dark he is far too young to understand what is happening. It is all over too soon and the memories are soon buried too deep to reveal the truth. Through the years, Rojer begins to realise that he has spent his entire life being sheltered and defended by those around him and though he quails at the idea of going it alone, when life presents no other choice, he begins to walk his path alone in order to see just where it leads.
The Warded Man offers a completely unbiased exploration of its own world, illuminating at once its vast and encompassing faults and its deep sense of strength and hope in the wake of persecution from a dangerous and formidable foe. It is a confident and successful story of everything fantasy should be: religion, identity, belonging, hope, family, love, good and evil, power and how to use it—everything that makes epic fantasy what it is.
I was astounded by this book and it’s been a while since I’ve had the pleasure of such a statement. Brett’s prose is simple and effective, but that’s not where the true talent lies and what makes the book such an unalloyed pleasure. It is his immense world and honest, true, awesome characters that make it the stellar success it is. There is nothing about The Warded Man that I did not like. Nothing.
This book is just epic.
NB: My review of The Desert Spear, the 2nd book in the Demon Cycle will be posted shortly.