The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
3.5 stars, I guess.
I picked this one up because I wanted to see how a recent, successful epic fantasy series started. Like many others, the literal answer seems to be “With protagonists as kids”
More specifically, this seems like a promising start that goes wrong in a bunch of interesting ways.
For example, the setup: This is a pre-industrial world where demons (aka “corelings”) rise from the ground at night, hunting and killing humans. The only protection humans have is to hide behind wards, magical symbols that hold demons at bay.
Once, people had more wards that were more powerful, but as the population has been fragmented and centuries pass, much of the old weapons have been lost. It’s a war of attrition, and humans are slowly losing.
As it is, a fine setup. The story opens with Three Admirable Protagonists–as children–who need to be instructed on The Way The World Works, for the reader’s benefit, and it’s the usual slow-paced epic fantasy thing, where we have to follow them to each new place, to meet new people and see new wonders, mainly because epic fantasy readers are tourists in a made-up landscape.
But… the problems. Brett does play rpgs, apparently, but he doesn’t think about his setting the way a player would.
For instance, wards seem perfect for ingenious, demon-destroying traps, but no one tries to build them. The only traps in the book are really tame.
Also, since you can attack across wards, you might expect the people huddled behind them to be the greatest archers in the world. Nope. Bows just don’t come into it. Yeah, the corelings have thick armor that makes them hard to hurt, but what about a windlass crossbow? What about aiming for the eyes? Sure, you’ll miss most of the time, but it beats the current plan, “cower and hope”.
The corelings themselves must be dumber than dogs or cats… Wards can be thwarted by partially covering them, but none of the demons ever tries to kick dirt or wet leaves onto them.
What’s more, wards (while not exactly rare) are not nearly as ubiquitous as they ought to be. Not enough people know how to do them, and portable circles are too expensive; this shit should be everywhere, because the demand is so high. It just wasn’t believable that towns and houses had one layer of protection, or that repairing/creating wards was an occupation that could make you rich. I didn’t believe it.
Beyond the implications of the setting is the odd pacing of the story, which follows each major development in the three characters’ lives right up to the point where the author realized the book was called “The Warded Man” so best skip a bunch of things to get right to that. The main character vanishes, replaced by Tattooed Batman, and… well, let’s just say it’s a little jarring, especially since so much of his character has been completely changed.
Finally, something serious: it’s one thing to have multiple cultures engaged with a resistance to genocide put heave pressure on women to have babies. It’s not fun, but it’s not surprising. What is surprising is the appearance of fantasy Muslims, complete with burkas and merchants who love to flatter and haggle. I’m especially not pleased to see them set up as antagonists for the next book.
It’s funny. Enjoying sf/f has made me a very forgiving person, artistically. Dude in a rubber suit destroying a balsawood Tokyo? Sure, go with it. It doesn’t look real but I’m willing to pretend it does because I want that thrill.
The same goes for this novel. There were plenty of good things here, especially the supporting characters, and under normal circumstances I’d be willing to pretend that Our Hero is the first person to think of tattooing wards onto himself. But I just don’t want to revisit those warlike, treacherous, faux-Muslims again, so I’ll wait for Mr. Brett to start a new series before returning to his work.
Buy a copy for yourself.