Sometimes it’s easier to be a coward. Easier to not fight back. To not stare in the eye of the bully harassing you. To slink around the corner, avoiding confrontation. Maybe the odds aren’t in you favor. Maybe fighting back could mean serious injury. Maybe it could mean your life.
But what if your family was in danger. Would you stand and watch, paralyzed by fear, unable to help. Or would you fight. Even if fighting meant sacrificing yourself for your loved ones. What choice would you make?
Most would fight for their family no matter the odds. Some wouldn’t, too controlled by their cowardice. Too cowed by their fear of death. But what if you didn’t fight.
And your child saw.
Saw their parent revealed as a coward, their respect for you disappearing instantly like a magic trick. Poof! Their hero tumbling from a pedestal.
What would that do to the child? What would that make them?
Arlen, Leesha and Rojer, the three main characters in Peter V. Brett’s wonderful debut “The Warded Man”, are all affected by formative and traumatic events as children. These events define them. While all of their traumas are unique, the results are not. They all become fighters in a world in which most people have given up fighting, content with living in fear.
Demons rule the night, pillaging, maiming and killing. As the sun sets, they rise up like wisps of steam from the Core, solidifying into elemental grotesqueries. Wood demons. Fire Demons. Rock Demons. Those folks caught outside, unprotected, are gruesomely ravaged and slaughtered. People hide behind warded buildings during the night, cowering like frightened rabbits, the magical wards the only thing standing between them and sure death.
Those that fight don’t live. So no one fights. Still wards often fail, the demons finding a gap in the magic, a chink in the armor. And then the slaughter begins. And the blood runs.
Arlen is a farm boy in the small village of Tibbet’s Brook. One night, he saves his mother from a demon attack while his father stands by—safely behind wards—paralyzed with fear. His father’s cowardice affects Arlen deeply. Hiding behind wards is not living, that’s imprisonment, a cage in which fear stands guard. Arlen desires to live, to be different from his father. To not live in fear. To not be a coward.
So he leaves Tibbet’s Brook, feeling betrayed, resentful anger in his heart. And the will to fight coursing in his blood.
Leesha is a young girl, lorded over by her manipulative and cruel mother. She’s promised to the young alpha male in the village. But when malicious rumors smear Leesha’s reputation, her prospects change. The town’s ancient Herb-Gatherer, the wizened healer Bruna, offers her safe haven as her apprentice. Bruna finds Leesha a dedicated student and a gifted healer. A willing sponge soaking up all her knowledge. And Leesha finds something too—a will to fight.
Rojer’s earliest memory is of his parents sacrificing themselves to save him from demons. Missing fingers from his hand serve as a physical reminder of his parent’s love. Through happenstance Rojer is raised by the Jongleur Arrick Sweetsong. Arrick trains Rojer to be a Jongleur—a combination of a bard and court jester. While Rojer not surprisingly struggles with juggling, he displays an extraordinary talent with the fiddle. A talent for making music that mesmerizes demons and holds them fast. A talent that can control them.
Let’s get this out of the way first. “The Warded Man” is the best debut novel since Patrick Rothfuss’ “The Name of the Wind”. It’s really that good. Both novels essentially are coming-of-age stories. We watch the characters grow and develop, overcoming the trials of youth, discovering their purposes in life. Unlike Rothfuss’ novel though, “The Warded Man” covers more time during the course of the story, years pass between parts. We experience the characters fully from youth to adulthood, their growing pains and emotional scars, how the past events in their lives have affected them. For good and for bad. What they’ve become and why they became that way. We see the cause and effect.
Brett has created an absolutely fascinating world. Having demons rise every night—a deadly evil controlling the darkness—is a great idea. Night is the ever present danger. The enemy. There is no centralized evil figure in the story, no grotesque minions to do its bidding. The setting sun is the clarion call to battle. You can flee evil minions, but you can’t escape the night. You can’t escape the terror.
The ward system is unique and intriguing, powerful magic if done correctly, but also easily open to mistakes. Essentially people hide behind magical groupings of lines for safety. Whether they live or die hinge upon the quality of the symbols. It’s like staking your life on the protective power of the letter ‘a.’ Not particularly reassuring. And rife with the possibility of potential mistakes. No pressure, but if you don’t draw the ‘a’ perfectly, demons will snack on your face.
But wards don’t just keep the demons out, they keep people in. Like metal bars, imprisoning people in their homes. Freedom vanishing with the setting sun. Most are content with exchanging their freedom for safety. Content with demon as gaolers. But not Arlen. He believes freedom is worth fighting for, worth dying for. Worth striving for.
Interestingly, Arlen starts off as a fantasy cliché—a farm boy living in a small village when a pivotal event changes his life. Suddenly farm boy finds himself neck deep in battling some monstrous evil in order to save the world. Brett plays with the cliché in the first part of the novel, before subverting it, taking Arlen instead in an unexpected direction. This means the first part of “The Warded Man” is straightforward and not nearly as engaging as the rest of the book. Other than Brett’s fantastic world-building, you’ve read this story before. Not much is new. But within this cliché is valuable information. Information you’ll need to truly understand where Arlen ends up as an adult. It’s essential to his character’s psychology, essential to his being. And it makes Arlen’s character arc much more rewarding by the end.
“The Warded Man” described in one word. Tremendous. Want some more words? How about—engrossing, deeply moving, and downright Awesome. That’s right—Capital-‘A’-Awesome. Awesomeness squared for you math geeks. Can you feel my passion? Can you tell I loved this book? That I heart “The Warded Man” like a teenage girl pines over her first crush, distractedly drawing hearts in her notebook as she dreams of being swept away.
Brett’s novel likely has already wrapped up the award for Best Debut of 2009. I’d be surprised if there was a better debut this year. There might not even be a better fantasy novel this year.
Final Grade: 91 out of 100
Computer geek, mathematician, philosopher, blogger. Happily married, father of one. Always exhausted. You can read more of my reviews at Blood of the Muse.