This one starts with a farmboy.
Arlen Bales lives on a small farm with his parents, near the small village of Tibbet’s Brook. He’s quite a bright and cheery kid, despite the world he lives in. In this world, darkness brings demons – they sprout from the earth at night like natural killing machines, and come in various guises. Fire demons are the hunters, the dogs in the pack. Rock demons are the muscle – the sheer, terrifying brute force. And they are only the beginning. When Arlen’s life is shattered by this plague of demons he has to make his way out into the world, and in doing so, force himself into becoming the hunter, making the demons his prey.
So far, so ordinary. For fantasy, anyway. And that’s where this one falls down for me. I read all the glowing reviews, saw the rabid fanbase and slowly, The Painted Man rose to the top of my reading pile. I knew it was a “farmboy versus the world” story, but assumed it would be a completely fresh and original take on a tired old trope. But, mostly, it really isn’t. There is no truly shocking twist, no sudden reveal that I didn’t see coming. The Painted Man’s biggest disappointment, for me at least, was that it never really shocked me as a reader. Its plot just seemed very unoriginal.
But, that’s not to say this isn’t an exciting read.
Brett’s writing is fast paced, the characters are always interesting and despite the tropes, it’s a well-developed setting. The plot may be fairly uninspired, but the overarching demon infestation and the history of the world is what’s really interesting here, making me hope Brett explores this further in later novels. Although it perhaps feels geographically small, the level of world-building here is genuinely excellent and heaps layers on to a book which would otherwise be fairly forgettable.
Brett also has an interesting way of structuring the novel. We follow Arlen up to a certain point in time in his life and then jump to the second major POV character, Leesha, way back around the same time we first met Arlen. Brett then does this again with the third POV, Rojer. It’s perhaps not a structural choice which everyone will enjoy, as arguably it robs the book of its sense of urgency when Brett cuts from the climax of one character arc to start another. But I found it worked and helped build the whole book to a fairly memorable ending.
The other element which deserves a positive mention is the magic system. It’s as basic as it comes – paint symbols on the ground and they will help protect people from demons. Sure, there is a little more to it than that (and hints at bigger things to come) but essentially it’s Demons vs Symbols (Wards). It’s so basic, so D&D that it shouldn’t work – but it really does. A lot of this has to do with the atmosphere. Brett has created a novel that is based on fear. Fear against the demons, fear against the night itself. Ultimately, the demons are deliberately simple – they represent fear itself. And the only way people can fight this fear is with literal symbols, and the faith they have in the power of these wards. It’s a deceptively simple system that drives everything in the book. Everything is based on fear and attempting to overcome it.
So overall, The Painted Man was a bit of a mixed bag for me. Nothing about it sings of originality, but Brett’s writing helps lift it above the majority of other “farmboy saves the world” stories. The world he’s created is an exciting one to read about and it sets up what could be a far more original sequel – something which I plan on reading very soon. For all that I found uninspired about The Painted Man, I enjoyed reading it and the pages flew past – so it must be doing something right.