Review: The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett

April 12th, 2012 by jkastronis

This my the first of what I hope will be many book reviews for this site. This is the first real book review I’ve done outside of stuff for school years and years ago, so it may be a little rough and I’ll probably be revising the exact format as I try things out. Assume light spoilers unless specifically mentioned.

I received the Warded Man, a fantasy novel by Peter V. Brett, for Christmas from my sister. The novel follows three separate characters, Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer. Every night, when the sun goes down, vicious demons called corelings rise from the earth. The corelings seem to possess little more than animal-like intelligence and attempt to kill and devour any living thing, particularly people, they can get their claws on. Humanity is protected from extinction only by magical runes, known as wards, which are painted, drawn, engraved, or otherwise placed in precise patterns on city walls and buildings.

However, the wards must be carefully maintained, as a slight marring or displacement can lead to cracks in the barrier. When demons discover a hole big enough to enter, they can quickly pour through, easily slaughtering anyone inside. Unfortunately for humans, they only know defensive wards, which can protect them from the demons but are mostly useless for fighting against them. The demons themselves are pretty much immune to normal weapons, meaning that fighting back is, for the most part, futile. The only way to kill a demon is through incredible force (such as shooting one with a ballista), taking advantage of certain weaknesses of some types of demons (wood demons can be set on fire, for instance), or by trapping them until the sun comes up in the morning.

The story opens in the aftermath of a ward breach, where a village tries to put out fires, searches for survivors, and mourns the dead. Arlen Bales, a young boy, assists his parents with these tasks. Later, another demon attack leads to his mother being killed, and though Arlen tries to fight back, his father cowers behind the wards, leading Arlen to realize that the corelings rule humanity through fear. He flees into the wilderness and survives through cunning, a talent for painting wards, and a fair bit of luck.

Later, we are introduced to Rojer, another young boy who loses both of his parents in an attack and is adopted by a jongleur (a sort of traveling entertainer), and Leesha, a teenage girl who has an overbearing mother who is slandered by her muscle-head fiancee and dedicates herself to learning the art of herb gathering in order to care for the sick.

Each of the three move through the world on their own paths, attempting to deal with life in a harsh world where each night could easily be their last. They slowly grow into their various roles, become disenchanted with the cowering and fearful stance humanity has taken toward the demons.

The book is, overall, very well written. Brett does a very good job of getting across the state of fear and loathing humanity holds toward the demons. Though the three POV characters all reject the fear in their own ways, Brett maintains the sense of dread the corelings bring through the descriptions of the attacks. Several characters get caught out at night and have to evade the demons to reach a warded area or sleep within special portable wards that keep the demons only a few feet away, beating on the barriers and trying to get in.

This is where Brett does his best work, in describing the emotions of people and the actions of the demons. The picture of nightly demon attacks is painted extremely well. Considering this drives the entirety of the novel, that’s vitally important. I was very much able to understand both the actions of those who huddled together in the darkness behind warded walls and those who wondered why they can’t fight back.

The novel is character driven rather than plot driven. There isn’t much of a plot, in fact. It’s written more as a series of vignettes in the lives of these characters as they exist in this terrible world. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the characters are very well developed and all interesting. However, it also means there weren’t too many chapters that ended and made me go “I need to find out what happens next.” That’s neither bad nor good; too many books are written to be “page turners” without thought given to narrative consistency or character building.

The plot does pick up toward the end of the book, once the titular Warded Man is fully introduced. I admit, I found this a nice revelation. The book builds up toward his introduction and does it in a very natural way. I wasn’t exactly shocked at who it was, but neither did I anticipate it either. Once he comes around, things build toward a climax rapidly and set up the events of the sequel.

The biggest flaw with the book is the dialogue. I felt it was rather plain at times and rarely stood out to me. It wasn’t bad, but there were also more than a few times things came across as too scripted. The dialogue just didn’t flow like a natural conversation, but rather actors reciting lines. On the plus side, there weren’t any lines that were awkward or just stupid.

Finally, one big thing bothered me, and beware… MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW! Skip the parts between the *s to avoid them.

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Late in the novel Leesha is gang raped. The attack comes mostly out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to have much point. It is done to make her weak and vulnerable for when she meets Arlen shortly after and also introduce something of a “human beings can be huge monsters too” ambiguous morality into the novel. The problem is both of those things could have been achieved without resorting to the rape trope, something that is disturbingly becoming increasingly common in fantasy novels.

Rape is not something to be used lightly. It is both dehumanizing and depowering and used almost exclusively to send women fleeing into the arms of men who can save them. Oftentimes, it’s used simply to weaken the woman and “break” her. Which is, of course, what happens here.

It wasn’t something that ruined the book, but it’s something that bothered me.

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END SPOILERS!

In the end, the book is a very good read and definitely worth picking up. The premise is interesting, the writing is quite good, and the characters are all well developed. The book has some flaws, but they aren’t glaring and only detract a little bit from the whole. The book is the first of a planned trilogy. The sequel, the Desert Spear, has been published and I hope to review it later in the year. Overall, I give it a B+.

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