Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man is remarkable in it’s handling of several genre-defining tropes. It evokes just the right sense of mysticism; hero’s journey; socioecomonic commentary; and breathless action. Added into the mix are characters with solid motivations, unique voices, and genuine conflict. Think Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet combined with The Forrest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. Follet’s great characterization mixed with the omnipresent threat of otherworldly evil.
As I started this novel I couldn’t help but think, “Oh no, here we go again.” I’m not entirely sure what has sparked the recent trend in de-aging all the protagonists in fantasy novels. Maybe it was the success of Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World, or even George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Maybe it is just a blatant grab at the Young Adult market. Frankly, The Worm is kind of over it. So few writers actually write children well that it should be left to those who do. Nonetheless, Brett introduces us to Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer as very young children. But he wisely avoids two of the biggest potential pitfalls of this strategy. He has them act age and character appropriately and, best of all, he time-jumps often enough that we spend the second half of the book with the adult versions of our three protagonists.
Although this is very much a suspenseful, action-driven tale, The Warded Man does not skimp on character development. There was so much opportunity for Brett to fall back on the tried and true character arcs of the genre and allow his protagonists to become one-note facades. But just when I thought he was going to zig, he zagged. (Or maybe it was the other way around.) Each of the three main characters, and many of the peripheral ones, have unique motivations and ambitions. What makes their journeys most enjoyable is that Brett took the time to build the foundations for each character’s personality so they never sound “out of voice” throughout the novel. Brett allows each character his or her own journey, morality, and purpose so that when the trio meet up it feels organic that their needs coincide but not necessarily their motivations. The integrity of each character remains true throughout, despite each experiencing their own evolution into adulthood. The Warder rejects his society on principal; The Jongleur is abandoned by circumstance; and The Herb-Gatherer is expelled by hyposcricy. How each of them internalize these childhood issues and then channel them into action is what will keep this book at the top of my recommendation list for a long time to come.
This novel has all of the above but it also has quite a lot of frantic action in the face of a horde-like evil. While not strictly a zombie tale, it has that same unrelenting claustrophobic dread I normally associate with the best of the zombie genre. There is just something very unsettling about having to live your life entirely in the daylight – for fear of certain death if caught outside and unprotected at night. Aside from the terror of being gutted by demons, the rules of this world create an additional uneasiness. Every aspect of human life in Brett’s world is limited by the nightly rising of the demons, and by the fear of the same.
And then there is the man himself, the Warded Man. I won’t say anything to spoil the plot of this book, but the man is one hard-core machine of stoic badassery. The fight scenes are fluid and beautifully realized. He is no one-liner killing machine or bon vivant swordsman. The Warded Man is more of a warrior monk with no religion save his own need to send the demons back to the Core.
True to the genre, Brett builds his world on templates of modern day society. There are the inescapable reflections of cultures and religeons of the world. I will not comment much on that becasue the parrellels are fairly obvious and not worth spending much time on. It is certainly not preachy or offensive, but there was not much of note in the religious or political commentary in The Warded Man. This is no Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind. Now THAT was a massive treatise on socialism v. meritocracy disguised as a fantasy novel! I will say, however, that Brett makes one fairly unique observation in this novel that gave me an audible chuckle – if for no other reason than because I’d not seen it used in this setting or in this way before. (Or maybe I was just feeling particularly raw after the sensory assault that is the morning news in Los Angeles.) In Brett’s world, Messengers (the heralds of politcal news; middle-men of commerce; collectors of regional information; and deliverers of the mail) brave nights on the open road with a Jongleur to accompany them in their quest. Nearly all Messengers travel with Jongleurs who juggle, mug, sing, and caper for the crowds. The unlikely pairing is explained by the Messenger Gerald when he states, “Folks are less likely to string a man up for telling them taxes are raised when he’s juggling for their kids.” And later when Messenger Ragen says, “A Jongleur may impress the townies, but he’ll only hold you back in a duke’s court. The dukes and merchant princes have Jongleurs of their own. All they’re interested in is trade and news…” Pretty much sums things up, doesn’t it?
I have only one complaint about The Warded Man, and I think Peter V. Brett may not be solely at fault for it. It is a little annoying that any great story (and even the crap ones) all have to be a huge franchise series these days. What ever happened to the really great idea that is contained in one novel? The best of these entries end conclusively. While the reader can long to hear of additional adventures – each individual book needs to be a satistying read with a tangible conclusion. You should feel the issues were resolved. Ask yourself – have the characters done what needs to be done? Yes, in the case of The Warded Man. At least until the VERY end… With one horrible tacked-on scene in which another power is rising up and moving across the desert with obvious intentions for conflict. Setting up the next book, of course.
This was the most unfortunate part of the book even though the imagery was great and cinematic. But it just felt like a cheap tease. A trailer for the sequel. A post-credits stinger scene. The killer’s body disappearing after a fatal blow. The bloodless hand thrust out of the grave. I think you get it.
We are at a place where readers are smart enough to search out additional books by an author. To introduce something new at the end of a story just to propel interest in the sequel seems a little like a shameless grab at extra dollars. If an author knows where his next novel is going, or even has it written already, there is nothing wrong with including an opening scene or chapter in previews at the end of the book. But to include it in the text of the novel feels highly manipulative and something of a turn-off. Ian Flemming’s James Bond novels didn’t end with a “dun-dun-duuuun…” cliffhanger, and yet I’m pretty sure he was able to successfully write and sell a few of those books for many years.
All in all, The Warded Man is a quickly-paced, rich story that charges through from start to finish like the Warded Man through a pack of fire demons. It is blunt instrument and fanciful melody all in one. Check this one out. You will not be disappointed.