As darkness falls after sunset, the corelings rise—demons who possess supernatural powers and burn with a consuming hatred of humanity. For hundreds of years the demons have terrorized the night, slowly culling the human herd that shelters behind magical wards—symbols of power whose origins are lost in myth and whose protection is terrifyingly fragile. It was not always this way. Once, men and women battled the corelings on equal terms, but those days are gone. Night by night the demons grow stronger, while human numbers dwindle under their relentless assault. Now, with hope for the future fading, three young survivors of vicious demon attacks will dare the impossible, stepping beyond the crumbling safety of the wards to risk everything in a desperate quest to regain the secrets of the past. Together, they will stand against the night.
The Warded Man, published as The Painted Man in the UK, is one of the best epic fantasy books that I have read in a long time. Like most of the things I read, for one reason or another I put off reading this one entirely too long. Because of my manic compulsion to buy everything I see that even remotely piques my interest, I bought this book several years ago and it has languished in my TBR ever since. What renewed my interest in the series was, believe it or not, my manic compulsion to… you get the idea. Grim Oak Press, a small, independent publisher specializing in high quality, collectible editions of books, announced their intentions to produce a limited edition of The Warded Man and the only way I could justify spending that much money on a single book was if I really liked it. So, with the only option being to read it, I eagerly set myself to my task. Boy, was I not disappointed.
“Hiding isn’t always enough, Arlen,” Ragen said. “Sometimes, hiding kills something inside of you, so that even if you survive the demons, you don’t really.”
The thing that may be most interesting to me about The Warded Man is the world that Brett has created. Hundreds of years in the past, humanity fought against the corelings and enjoyed a more advanced and prosperous society. However, their hubris resulted in the near annihilation of humanity. Now, without the technology and knowledge of the past, the people of the world do their best to complete their work and retreat to safety behind the lines of their protective wards because by night the corelings ascend from the core of the planet with one goal, finishing what they started. It’s a nice twist on the classic trope of good vs. evil and creates a lot of tension with the life-saving wards being so vulnerable (the protective web that repels the corelings will completely fail if a single ward is marred or obscured in any way.) The corelings themselves are a varied group of elemental based creatures with a single common thread connecting them, an overwhelming desire to eat humans. The exploration of additional types of corelings and the bonds that tie them is hinted as something that we may find out in future entries in the series.
On the surface, The Warded Man is a classic bildungsroman, with our three main characters and POVs being Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer. We follow their lives from an early age to maturity and get a center stage view of the often tragic events that end up shaping the course of their lives. Because we see where they came from, the characters are lent a certain level of credibility that I don’t often see. Sometimes a character will act a certain way or respond to something in a way in which we don’t understand, but in The Warded Man we know why Arlen leaves the protection of the wards and goes on his own personal quest to become the eponymous hero because we have seen the experiences that led him there. The same goes for each of our other two main characters. With such a hyper focus on their coming of age stories, a lot of the book is quite a slow burn, with the central plot progressing slowly. However, I found the cliffhangers the author used at the end of each POV to be an additional source of suspense and reason to keep flying through the pages. In the end, Brett shows expert characterization and the convergence of the three separate stories into one is handled deftly.
“Why would you do that for me?” Leesha asked.
Rojer smiled, taking her hand in his crippled one. “We’re survivors, aren’t we?” he asked. “Someone once told me that survivors have to look out for one another.”
Despite the quite grim and brutal nature of the world, The Warded Man never fell into the category of grimdark for me. Throughout the book, a hope for the future is ever present. Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer do not allow their tragic pasts or circumstances hold them back. They are each striving for a future in which humanity no longer has to live in fear of the dark and the monsters it brings with it. While most of the world seems apathetic to their eventual extinction, Arlen and crew are determined to reclaim the courage and skill that allowed the generations past to fight against the corelings and firmly establish the world as the domain of humankind. They are characters of agency. The only real complaint I have is *CONTENT WARNING: Sexual Assault* the use of rape as a plot device. Fortunately, it wasn’t shown in graphic detail on the page, but I can’t help but feel like it did not serve any purpose that couldn’t be attained in another way.
Overall, I really loved The Warded Man. In many ways it is written like a classic fantasy novel, but it is presented in a very modern way. You’ll find the farm boy turned hero, the chosen one, and many other tropes, but Brett manages to recycle them into something more palatable for modern readers. It challenges some of the flaws inherent in those tropes, such as the religious idea of a chosen one leading to the complacency of its believers. Round that out with a unique magic system where symbols, or wards, are drawn or carved onto surfaces to create a web of protection and we have a winner. I feel like this is a book that I will be comparing other epic fantasies to and it is certainly one that makes me look forward to its sequels.
“There are times in life when we feel so very alive that when they pass, we feel … diminished. When that happens, we’ll do almost anything to feel so alive again.”