The Painted Man – Peter V. Brett (Published 2008)
Completed: June 7 2010
There’s something about The Painted Man that I just can’t put my finger on. I can identify criticisms, but I struggle to explain what is so good about the book. I can say that the story is a thrill ride that I powered through as quickly as any of the other books I have enjoyed this year. My guess is that it’s simply good story-telling.
The Painted Man is another of the recent Fantasy debuts that puts Peter V. Brett in the same class as Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch, among others. Another writer (Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary fame) whose opinion I respect was so effusive in his praise of the book that I had to bump it up to near the top of my ‘to read’ list. When it was confirmed that Brett would be attending Aussiecon 4 the book found its way to the top of my pile.
The strength of The Painted Man is definitely the intriguing world. Brett creates an innovative and original setting which is very well realized and behaves consistently throughout the story. At the heart of it is a blend of vampire and demon mythologies – humankind is repressed by an unending demon horde that rises up at night and terrorizes the people until daylight. The only defense available to them is a system of magical wards which they cower behind on a nightly basis. Brett does such a terrific job of setting up the hopeless, frightened and oppressed state of humanity that my desire to see the Painted Man fight back against the unstoppable horde dragged me through the first few hundred pages. The anticipation for the wonderfully foreshadowed development of this character was sufficient to sustain my interest on its own.
Unfortunately the Painted Man is not the only major character. There are two other viewpoint protagonists who are weaker, in terms of both their development and prowess, and the intersection of their plot arcs feels contrived (as do their complementary abilities). The contrivance is necessary however to set up the exciting climax that will catapult most readers into the next book in the series. Characterization in general is not Brett’s strong point. Many of the secondary characters are one-dimensional, displaying little growth or development to change the reader’s perspective. Frequently they are cruel in a way that serves the plot but is not consistent or believable, as if it’s been decided that the main characters need to experience some sort of abuse in order to grow. Even the major characters tend to have singular, simplistic motivations. It feels unnecessary to develop three major viewpoint characters, especially reaching back into the childhood of each one. Brett treads close to breaking the classic ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. But it still works!
The most difficult aspect of character is sexuality. It feels like Brett developed the sexuality of his characters as a function of setting (which makes sense, given that Brett is creating a primitive and alien world). Lives are typically short and an ‘eat, drink and be merry' mentality makes sense. Yet there’s very little subtlety, especially given that we witness certain events from the perspective of children, who aren’t apt to be subtle. Males in particular come off as quite animalistic when it comes to their sexuality. It feels like every male that crosses the path of the heroine is intent on raping her (this is not a tremendous exaggeration). Leesha's experiences in this area are certainly the most controversial aspect of the story - I felt that her response to certain events was unrealistic and almost disturbing, but I won't comment further to avoid spoilers.
The world is so rich and the eponymous Painted Man such an intriguing figure that I’m left feeling that an Epic Fantasy in which he is a more mysterious figure, or a Heroic Fantasy dedicated to the Painted Man himself would have also been interesting to read. Brett’s attention is instead split between three characters, two of whom are less interesting (and consequently have less time dedicated to them, as if the author realised it himself). I think what's at play here is that Leesha and Rojer are great characters who suffer only in comparison to the Painted Man. The contrast is actually very effective in drawing the reader into each of the character arcs.
I have to give The Painted Man 4.5 stars. If it wasn’t for the issues I identified I would have given it a full 5. It’s a testament to the X-factor that the book has that it scores so highly for me. I haven’t read Stephen King, but from what I hear of his writing I think Brett may be similar – I may criticize the writing, but the man sure can tell a story.
Read it – to be dragged through an exciting, fast-moving plot in an alien and innovative fantasy world.
Don’t read it – if you can’t look past literary flaws to enjoy a terrific story.