Perhaps he would die tonight. Perhaps not. Arlen told himself it did not matter. But as the light waned, so too did his nerve. He felt his heart pounding, and every instinct told him to leap to his feet and run. But there was nowhere to run to. He was miles away from the nearest place of succor. He shivered, though it was not cold.Peter Brett's debut novel, The Warded Man, is the opening volume to an epic fantasy trilogy that contains many familiar elements. Civilization has collapsed into a brute, subsistence-farming level after the return of the corelings, demonic creatures that arise each night from the land's Core to pillage and reave, three centuries before after more than a millennium's absence. The only thing protecting the remnants of human societies are mysterious ciphers called Wards, which serve to repel various demon attacks. However, these Wards have gaps and each night becomes a struggle to survive, with dawn a time of both hope and mourning. Throughout this novel, Brett does a very good job highlighting the terrors that night brings, with passages similar to the one quoted above serving to remind readers of the terror that the characters experience every day of their lives.
This was a bad idea, a tiny voice whispered in his mind. He snarled at it, but the brave front did little to loosen his knotting muscles as the last rays of the sun winked out, and he was bathed in darkness.
Here they come, that frightened voice in his head warned, as the wisps of mist began to rise from the ground.
The mist coalesced slowly, demon bodies gaining substance as they slipped from the ground. Arlen rose with them, clenching his small fists. As always, the flame demons came first, scampering about in delight, trailing flickering fire as they went. These were followed by the wind demons, which immediately ran and spread their leathery wings, leaping into the air. Last came the rock demons, laboriously hauling their heavy frames from the Core.
And then the corelings saw Arlen and howled with delight, charging the helpless boy. (p. 60)
The Warded Man covers 13 years of time and three character arcs are fleshed out. The first, that of Arlen, an orphaned 11 year-old survivor of a coreling attack, at first glance appears to follow that of the Warrior archetype often found in epic fantasies. He is tired of fleeing the coreling attacks and he searches for ways to improve the Wards so that they can not just repel the coreling attacks, but to destroy them in the process. It is through his story arc that we learn of the land's past and how a semi-mythical person, known as the Deliverer, learned how to use the Wards to defeat the corelings and to drive them so far into the Core as to prevent them from attacking for over a thousand years. While many authors perhaps might have been content to use Arlen's backstory as a shortcut to developing his character as an adult, several times throughout the novel, including one poignant scene with a potential beau, Brett goes to great lengths to show just how scarred Arlen has become in his quest to avenge his family and to discover ways to improve the Wards.
The second arc belongs to Leesha, the 13 year-old daughter of a prominent villager and his unfaithful, vampish wife. Beautiful and intelligent, Leesha is caught in a vicious rumor cycle in regards to her own moral scruples:
It took all of Leesha's strength to keep from breaking down in tears as she prepared supper that night. Every sound from Bared and Steave was like a knife in her haert. She had been tempted by Gared the night before. she had almost let him have his way, knowing full well what it meant. It had hurt to refuse him, but she had thought her virtue was hers to give. She had never imagined that he could take it with but a word, much less that he would. (p. 100)Instead of just having Leesha having a small backstory as a Healer's assistant and later Healer, Brett develops her character in a way that runs counter to many epic fantasy storyline developments. Leesha is independent-minded, but bound by her village's moral double standards. She has vowed to remain a virgin until her marriage vows are spoken, but she grows up with a mother who regularly cheats on her father. She fights to maintain her high social standing, only to discover that a man's word, full of lies as it may be, is more than enough to discredit anything she might say or do. Brett's depiction here is vivid, sad, and feels so genuine that I found myself responding even more to Leesha's story than I did to Arlen's.
The third character arc, that of Rojer, a young child adopted by a Jongleur, is more sketchy than the others. Scarred as the others are, due to his witnessing of a very brutal coreling attack when he was a very young child, Rojer learns one night that his abilities with the fiddle are so magical that they cause the corelings to dance rather than attack. However, I found his sections to be rather sketchier than the others, although perhaps Brett has more in store for Rojer than what was revealed in this first volume.
So while Brett utilizes the clichéd Warrior, Healer, and Bard archtypes for his three main characters, his efforts to make each of them conflicted, hurt characters who desire their own form of deliverance works to such an extent that for most of this novel, I found myself curious to see what would develop next and how each character would grow from their experiences. While these arcs are kept separate for most of the novel, when they come together in the final section, it feels more like the Warded Man has well-rounded, dynamic characters around him rather than a Hero with boon companions whose personalities are paper-thin representations.
However, there are some weaknesses with this novel. While the pacing and characterization generally are excellent, at times each falters, particularly in the last section. The omnious tone set by the early chapters fades a bit too much, especially once the Warded Man appears and the demonic corelings are being slaughtered. That narrative tension is lost and while I suspect (as did the characters themselves later on) that these elemental corelings are but the foot soldiers to the real threat looming over the final section, it did lessen the effect created by the horrific attacks shown in each character arc prior to the final section. Characterwise, I felt Brett rushed too quickly into a situation involving Leesha, as it seemed to me that he didn't remain as "true" to her developed character as he could have. Going to great pains to show her reluctance to conform to her village's sexual/moral double standards, only to reverse course to bring two characters together was a bit too abrupt for my tastes, although it must be noted that it wasn't simply just two bodies meeting and then crashing together in coition minutes later. Still, a bit more time developing a tension between these characters would have improved the plot and character dynamics.
The novel concludes on a cliffhanger of sorts, as there appears a challenger for the role that readers might have presumed one of the three main characters had assumed. I found it to be a natural ending point, one that leaves me curious to read what happens in the second volume, The Desert Spear, due out by the end of the year. Hopefully, Brett will show continued development as a writer, as The Warded Man, while imperfect in places, showed enough promise as to give me hope that Brett will emerge as one of the few must-read epic fantasy writers for me. Very good debut effort.
Publication Date: 2008 (UK); March 10, 2009 (US). Hardcover.
Publisher: Del Rey