Fantasy books are my preferred form of reading material and every once in a while a fantasy book comes along that makes me stand up and cheer.
The Warded Man (The Painted Man) by Peter V. Brett is just such a book.
This is great fantasy storytelling.
The tales begins simply enough with Arlen, a small eleven-year-old boy living on a farm, travelling with his family to a village called Tibbet’s Brook for supplies. They arrive to discover that people were killed during the night, dead bodies being piled up for burning.
Wards on their homes broke down and some demons, known as corelings, got in and killed them.
The author never comes right out and explains the situation. We learn about their society by living it through the eyes of the boy and the dialogue of the characters, their actions.
The author has done a masterful job of fleshing out the dangerous world these people share, the threat all endure every night. Every night.
As the sun sets, corelings, of which there are several types, wood, wind, fire, sand, rock and more, literally rise up from the ground, from the ‘core’ of the earth to hunt and kill the living.
The living are basically helpless, possessing no tools or weapons to fight back. They are creatures of magic with incredible strength. Simple weapons and tools do nothing to them.
Their Tenders, or religious leaders, say the corelings are a curse, and one day a Deliverer will come to save them.
The only defense the people do have are wards. Certain skilled people learn to construct elaborate patterns in the dirt, on wood, in stone, that creates an invisible shield the demons cannot penetrate. The strength of the wards, however, are dependent on the skill of the creator and some are more skilled at it than others. Those that create weak wards leave holes in the invisible net. And every night, the corelings test the integrity of the wards, slashing at them, pounding on them, magic light flashing every time they are struck. Harrowing for those hoping to survive inside the invisible shields.
The poorer people living in small communities aren’t as educated as those in the bigger cities and their wards are often not as effective. Hence the deaths in Tibbet’s Brook.
Communication between cities and towns is tricky when they are more than a days ride from one another. Few people ever travel.
Brave men volunteer and train from a young age to become Messengers. They learn to ward and create their own protective circles in the wilderness, surviving long nights away from civilization.
And while Messengers bear official notices and trade goods for the business community, they are assigned talented Jongleurs who are trained to entertain and relate stories, singing, dancing, juggling and playing instruments. It is the highlight of the day for these small communities when a Messenger and his Jongleur arrive.
Arlen, after a series of terrifying events resulting in the loss of more lives, leaves home, desiring to be a Messenger one day.
The author doesn’t only focus on Arlen. The tales of two more young characters living in two completely different parts of the world are told.
Leesha from Cutter’s Hollow happens her way into becoming an apprentice Herb Gatherer. Herb Gatherers are like doctors, nurses and pharmacists all rolled up in one. It is a revered and honorable position in any community. Her overbearing mother is not pleased by her lessons, wanting Leesha to wed and bear children, and there is constant tension between them. Leesha, however, learns a lot more about her family and the secrets of the community from Bruna, the old woman training her. Leesha has a talent for Herb Gathering and her desire to pursue this path won’t be denied.
Rojer (Halfgrip), the youngest of the three main characters, has his whole life stolen from him at the very beginning of his tale. He loses his parents and community before we even know who he is or what is happening. We feel much like he does, scared and helpless, saved by a talented, drunken, albeit cowardly Jongleur. Rojer trains to be a Jongleur, developing a unique talent with the fiddle.
The children are not perfect and make many mistakes, sometimes very serious mistakes that result in serious injuries and deaths. With corelings around, there isn’t much room for errors but they learn from these hard lessons. Their maturity only serves to give them depth as they get older.
Their tales are intriguing, heartbreaking and entertaining. The readers move between all three tales with consistent ease. It is not mystery that it all points to them eventually crossing paths.
The book culminates in the Battle of Cutter’s Hollow.
I can’t overstate how much I enjoyed reading this book. It is one of my favorite books now. I would consider it one of the gold standards for Fantasy fiction.
It was published back in 2009, and the author has several more offerings in this cycle that I look forward to reading.
My advice. Read it. You won’t be disappointed.
Ten stars, if I could give it ten stars.
Allen M Werner is the author of the epic Fantasy series, The Crystal Crux
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