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Ashana Lian's Fantasy Lab

Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Book: The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett

This book I finished last week and never got round to writing it up after The Name Of The Wind, so I'm including it as one of July's reads.


The Painted Man analysis

Author: Peter V. Brett
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Published: 2008
Fantasy Sub-Genre: It's hard to immediately tell. The horror element clearly points to Dark Fantasy, but the extremely frequent use of magic and only three POV characters also makes me want to say High. However both Amazon and Goodreads say Epic. Soooo...

Sometimes there is very good reason to be afraid of the dark…

Arlen lives with his parents on their small farmstead, half a day's ride from the isolated hamlet of Tibbet's Brook. As dusk falls each evening, a mist rises from the ground promising death to any foolish enough to brave the coming darkness. For hungry demons materialize from the vapours to feed, and as the shadows lengthen, all of humanity is forced to take shelter behind magical wards and pray that their protection holds until the dawn.

But when Arlen's world is shattered by the demon plague, he realizes that it is fear, rather than the monsters, which truly cripples humanity. Only by conquering their own terror can they ever hope to defeat the demons. Now Arlen must risk leaving the safety of his wards to discover a different path, and offer humanity a last, fleeting chance of survival.

This review is not spoiler-free.

First and foremost, can I just say how much The Painted Man reminds me of the Demonata series? The horror of demons matched with the power and beauty of magic - I absolutely loved that about this. This book is a fantasy must-read. It's not one I myself would read a second time, but if you're a lover of epic fantasy then you should read this at least once. The plot is unique, engrossing, and completely unpredictable. The characters come to live and you empathise with their pain. And the ending? The ending makes you want to tear your fucking hair out.


Alren was a heartwarming and loveable character. At the start, it's clear he is simply ordinary and nothing special, until circumstances provoke him to be brave. After that he becomes more and more extraordinary as his courage grows. When he travelled with Ragen, who tells him that 'the great wards are lost' (p.33) and then later, when his father says ' "the stories say there were magic wards to fight with" ' but that they were lost (p.36), it's suddenly obviously what this story is all about.

When I put the book down to make a cup of tea I spotted the cover, realised the gorgeous symbols on the mesmerising front cover were wards, and thought - GAAASP Arlen becomes the Painted Man! Man, I get WAAAAY ahead of myself. The first mention of the fighting wards got me soo excited, and that was when I became well and truly addicted. I could not put this book down. My curiosity and eagerness made me consume this book in two days.

From page 36, I was as excited as HELL to reach the end of the story! The blurb made it seem as though the story was about Alren, which made me wonder how Roger and Leesha would tie in.  There was a part when the story of how humans forgot magic was told, I think that was p.44, and that was truly wonderful.

And then came that fateful scene when Arlen smudges the wards by mistake and what ensues leads to him cutting off the arm of the rock demon - and that incredible moment he realises that they can definitely be hurt, so why not destroyed entirely? That was one of my FAVOURITE bits.

Anoch Sun

When I went to fantasy Faction's Grim Gathering, I asked the four authors about how they created their civilisations and the answer Peter V. Brett gave was none less than what I suspected. The part about Anoch Sun was my absolute favourite and no description of mine will do it justice. It reminded me of Ancient Egyptian culture.

The Krasians reminded me very much of George R.R. Martin's Dothraki, being a warrior race with a hard class system, silent submissive women, and a thirst for blood. But their culture was different in a hell of a lot of ways so it kept me hooked to read about, even though to be honest I didn't always like what I was reading. But anyway, sorry, I've skipped.

Some Fantasy World Aspects

I absolutely loved the gold suns and silver moons currency system. When you read enough fantasy novels, you start to see the same old terms being used for money, but this was refreshing to me and made the actual coins sound enchanting. (Which I suppose large sums of money will be, naturally.) Also, having just read Tom Pollock's guest post on Fantasy Faction about money systems in fantasy, I'm keen to seek out new ways of presenting this in fantasy fiction.

The character Rusco I found hilarious. Another concept I really loved about this fantasy world is that messengers alway travel with a Jongleur, a practice that isn't just common but almost always guaranteed because of the demons. Unless one or the other got eaten by a demon. O_O

This book had some great names. They had a familiarity to them; Rojer/Roger, Mairy/Mary (one of my favourites), Jaik/Jake, Kally/Kelly, Arrick/Garrick, and so on. This, as I spoke about in the analysis of Stella Gemmell's The City, is one of my favourite fantasy naming techniques. I'll always prefer gently tweaking a familiar name than banging your elbow on a keyboard.

The hierarchy of the class system intriguing; the servant class, merchant class and so on, and people can marry into a class different to the one they were born into. There are huge wads of description when there needs to be, perfect for a tale such as this. Other times, description was minimal, which meant more action and that I could speed through the story - although this was a disadvantage later on in the story. As the novel went on,  I feel like it began to lose something... momentum? Hard to say. One final nitpick - the mention of the 'free cities' did make me roll my eyes just a little bit. I feel like almost every fantasy novel has a mention of this.


Reading Leesha's chapters was like reading some medieval high-school drama. It's definitely the weirdest thing I've ever said in a fantasy review but I assure you it's complimentary!

The townsfolk of Leesha's home are NOT the best bunch of people; that includes her awful empty-headed friends; her terrible, cruel, yet beautiful mother; her quiet and cowardly father, and the other townsfolk who'll believe literally any piece of gossip they hear. It kind of hurt to read how cruel they could be to her, actually. And it wasn't even the things they did, or said. It was their stares and judgement. Not to mention her ass of a fiance. Peter V. Brett did a great job with these characters - they were so complex. They weren't purely good or purely evil because one action but a mixture because of their beliefs.

For example, Stefny. She was the first to point the finger at Leesha's 'sin' - the false accusation of having slept with her fiance before marriage - even though it's hinted that Stefny committed the same 'sin', as her son look nothing like her husbands but curiously like some other dude. However at the end of the novel, not only I she courageous enough to face and fight the demons, but she survives. I still hate her guts, but now I respect her too.

The result it that is makes for incredibly emotive reading. When I think about it, at the start Leesha herself was quite simplistic, meek and empty-headed. But because of the vultures she's surrounded by, you're rooting for her before you know it. Then as her circumstances change, she grows and become more than capable of not only defending herself, but those in need. Sorry, I've skipped. Let's go back to thirteen year-old Leesha's narrative.

... actually, let's not.


The first narration of him at three years old was positively ADORABLE and I LOVED it. Having just followed on from Leesha's bit where contact with demons were limited, when the demons bit off half his hand left him maimed, it was another reminder of the constant danger these characters are in. Something as simple as an incorrectly drawn ward can cost a family their life - and in Rojer's case it does. He's the only one who survives. It's real danger, which made me really respect the story development. We know there is no miracle healing and no-one is coming back to life. They could really die. The stakes are high.

After the time jump, the POV chapters felt a bit out of sync but soon balanced. I hopes the three protagonist would cross paths and also hoped that Arlen and Leesha would become an item, though I don't really know why. Probably because when Rojer was three years old, Leesha was thirteen. So with the ten-year gap, I didn't think that would be happening.

Arlen's POV grew increasingly interesting, and I wondered if Jaik would be his jongleur - when that subplot fell to pieces my eyes were wide at what was coming next. Arlen's adventures were glossed over and suddenly he was in Krasia, and that made me slightly dislike the sparse descriptions in the book, compared to the likes of Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Arlen's betrayal by Jardir was absolutely awful. AWFUL. I felt SO anguished when I read that part, partly because Arlen's simple wish to give humanity a chance to fight back resulted in his life being forfeit, because of Jardir's cruel expropriation on the ground that a foreigner should not take the glory of such a find. The other reason was... I simply did not see it coming.

Rojer, I'm slightly embarrassed to say, was the least interesting of all the three narratives, excepting the discovery of the demons being manipulated and entranced by the music - another troke of genius and sheer brilliance. It's hard to get that image of Arrick as a slimeball out of my head, despite the sacrifices he made to raise Rojer. It was very saddening to see how Rojer struggled and lost his loved ones over and over. He says to Leesha, "I was meant to die a long time ago, and everyone who tries to save me ends up dead." (p.436) Heartbreaking.

Leesha. After breaking her wedding vows and becoming a herb gatherer, the whole art of herb gathering was by far one of the most captivating processes of this novel, not even surpassed by the art of wards - I thought I'd be swept away by the mysticism of warding, but actually I was quite disappointed. We do get some knowledge of specific wards and what they do, but I assume they are complex because no attempt at all is made to describe what the wards look like, although sometime we're told how they're drawn. So, yeah.

Bruna was one of my favourite characters, and was key in helping Leesha deal with the burden of being beautiful and her fear of her virginity being wrongfully given. By this point, she is about twenty or something, and she has blossomed into the sort of woman who, sadly, attracts the wrong kind of attention. After her fiance Gared turned out to be an ape, basically, she hid herself away for years until she speaks to Jizell and decided to give her virginity away while she could. For some reason she wanted to choose MARRICK (I keep calling him Michel for some reason), the absolute shitty dungheap who tried to rape her earlier, and only didn't succeed because she placed herbs in his food to stop him from getting an erection. Shortly following that, he threatens that if she reveals that fact to anyone that he'll kill her. So, WHAT THE HELL was going through her mind?

Though going back to that part, there was a very good quote there;
'I am saving him from himself, Leesha thought each time she dosed his food, for what man wished to be a rapist? But the truth was, she felt little remorse. She took no pleasure in using her skills to break his weapon, but deep down there was a cold satisfaction, as if all her female ancestors through the untold ages since the first man forced a woman to the ground were nodding in approval that she has unmanned him before he could unmaiden her.' (p. 288)

I liked it because I felt it was a concise and straightforward way to tackle her feelings about it. So, she doesn't choose Marrick because she wanted to choose somebody worthy, which was quite heartening. Then Rojer and Leesha cross paths. finally! I wasn't certain if they would become a couple (it seemed unlikely, but I wasn't too fond of Arlen anymore so I hoped they would) but I was just excited that finally, two of the three protags had met each other; when this occurs in books, usually good things happen.

But then comes the saddest, most awful bit in this novel where Leesha is raped by three men, and Rojer can do nothing but watch. He was almost killed the first time he tried to help her.  After the whole back and forth her whole life, at first almost been married off, then being coveted after, chased after, almost being raped but somehow escaping with her dignity, Deciding she will empower herself and make the choice on her own terms - all of a sudden the choice is violently taken away, and she is shamed in front of the probly one of the most humble men she has come across.

I am an analyst, as readers of this blog know, but I don't think there is anything left to gleen from this scene although I have tried and tried because it's hard to get my head around any other way. I matched tragedy up with divine intervention, concealed plotting, symbolism, anything. But, like when these events happen in the real world, I could not get any sense of righteousness at all, there was no arrival of a hero and no reason, just grief.

Shit, it really did rock me. I didn't think there was anything worse coming after Arlen's betrayal by Jardir, but if that was appalling, this was harrowing. I know I have said that the purpose of these is to analyse all aspects of fantasy where I can, but to be completely honest, rape in fantasy has a whole bunch of very sensitive ethics I do not want to go into right now, so do not be expecting it in the Fantasy Food For Thought feature below.


By the time the Painted Man aka Arlen joins them, I feel that this is all wrong, because it wasn't my imagining of the heroes banding together, Hurrah Let's Smite The Demons. Instead following Leesha's rape, Rojer's shame at having witnessed it, and Arlen's betrayal, the three of them came together as broken people.

Even though my original hunch about Arlen and Leesha getting together proved true, it wasn't satisfying, just sorrowful. It felt wrong somehow, like they were just trying to fill a bottomless hole in their hearts, and it was uncomfortable to read. When the demon sprung at them in the mud though, I can't lie, that was hilarious.

By the time I reached the final battle, my mood was brought down to something sober and the novel had become too dark to end with the vision of hope. We're left with a burning town, half its population dead, broken characters who are still trying to fnd their way, and our protagonist Arlen, the Painted Man, essentially a troubled antihero in a world that is already rife with demons. It doesn't make my heart sing when I put the book down, it just makes me brood.

As for tiny epilogue at the end, well that just put me in a FOUL mood. "That absoluelte fucking traitor Jardir!" is what I should have thought, but I was so icily sober that I just closed the book in silence and spent the next half hour lost in thought, trying to figure out if, after that rollercoaster of a tale, the payoff was rewarding enough for me.

Image: Arlen - The Painted Man by adamreese2006 (deviantart)

The View

I have something else to say about this novel which I wasn't sure whether to share, but I don't really see what I've got to lose except for closure so here goes. I don't like talking about my depression on this particular blog, which is why I have not made a tag for it, but sometimes it is necessary. For example.

Some pretty awful things happen in this book. Clearly. But it is a book. Many people I know can easily read it, get over it, and move on. Things that are fleeting for others bear down on me with an almost unbearable pressure. I cannot help but think about all the places in the world where some of the more horrifying events in this book really do happen.

Peter V Brett said himself that he's had emails and whatnot of people who thought the book was sick and twisted because of Leesha's traumatic event - and also said that what happens to Leesha is an issue nobody wants to talk about or even acknowledge, making the victims of such an ordeal suffer in silence.
This further strengthens my belief that fantasy literature plays an important role in our lives, not only helping us deal with unpleasant real-world issues by lulling us into an consolatory dreamscape, but also from presenting those same uncomfortable topics in a diluted way that we can handle. (Some are not so diluted. But you get the point.) We get, what... eighty, a hundred years tops? That's all the time we get to snatch to experience life on an earth that's millions of years old. So wonder sometimes we are drawn to the fantasy that comfort us, where we can escape to a happier realm.

But that is extremely hard for me. I have been living in my head since I was a child - it's the reason I was drawn to fantasy in the first place. I'm always thinking, pondering, having conversations with myself, storytelling. But it means when these issues come along, they're on a loop in my mind's eye until my conscience can decide what to do with the, what do hide them behind or what I need to do. Characters in this novel experience the sort of hardships that probably wouldn't appear in our nightmares, but they'll run circles in my head all day. I see nothing but misery and fears, some witnessed, som heard of, some imagined. The view is grim and it leaves me shaken. I haven't had an 'episode' (I call them Dark Days) in weeks and weeks, but I found some of The Painted Man hard to read and for brief moments I had to put the book down to get my head together.

... that's it.
Also, the review where I got this image states how they liked that this book doesn't drag the reader into 'endless politcal intrigues'. I found that really interesting because I also liked that aspect while I was reading, but now I've been reminded what it was missing I do wish we could've seen a bit more...
I can't help it, politics is my thing. :3

The Verdict

5 Sha's!!!

Yeah... I couldn't help it. The ending didn't leave me deep in thought, as most novels that have touched me do. Instead it touched my heart, then left me frowning, broody, and wondering if I wanted to continue in the series or read The Painted Man ever again.

It really did not take a path that I'd expected, and that's not in a good way. But despite that, when dallying between a four and a five how could I give it anything but a five? I'd been unwillingly dragged on an emotional rollercoaster, a whistle-stop tour through magic, ancient civilisations, an awesome library (always a bonus in fantasy), romance, bitchy women, an old crone, endearing protagonists, AND A SHITLOAD OF DEMONS!

The story was mag - ni - fi - cent. Impressive characters and a charmingly captivating narrative. When grief strikes, and sadly it does, too often and when you least expect - your heart truly goes out to those characters. And despite my upset, my uncertainty of being able to read this a second time, even - I rest the majority that qualm on my shoulders, and there is no denying that it was more than a pleasure to discover this tale.

Fantasy Food For Thought

Wards, runes, talismans, and other magical symbols or text.

This fantasy concept has been around for as long as I can remember fantasy. Wizards drawing symbols in the air. A book of shadows with a wiccan crest on the front. Pokemon. (Okay, not quite the same.) The idea that a mere 2D shape can have some sort of otherworldly power is a recurring theme in fantasy. In the Painted Man, careful scribbled drawn on the door of a house is all that saves that family from being slaughtered by demons.

Thing about the One Ring from Lord of the Rings, with a engraving that can only be read after casting it into the fire; or the map with Elvish script that can only be read in a certain moonlight. These symbols all have something in common and it is quite simple. They serve to either aid, or destroy.

To aid the protagonist is the most common use of these symbols, though I'm sure novels exist wherein the symbol belongs to evil, and so the protagonist must stay away at all costs of risk being tempted by power. One of my favourite symbols ever is the Triforce in The Legend of Zelda. It's so simple - literally three triangles - but that arrangement of straight lines symbolise power, wisdom and peace. Together, they give balance to the world.

The second FFfT topic is fairy tales in fantasy novels.

In The Name Of The Wind, Kvothe must dig deep into a tale cast off as a children's story to discover the truth about his parent's murderers. It is a driving force of the story - the same is true for Arlen in The Painted Man, who realising that did tale, dismissed by all, is what will save the lives of hundreds if he can discover the full truth of it.

Often in fantasy, like real life, the fantasy world will have their own fairy tales and fable stories, created or passes down with a strong moral or to stop children behaving like idiots, playing underneath an anvil or something. It's interesting when some fantasy novels emphasise that there is far more than a shred of truth to these stories than people realise, and some of the truths still exist in their current time.

In both The Name of the Wind and The Painted Man, the common folk's resistance in believing the fables is because if the good concealed within the story is true, then the bad must be also - the Chandrian/Lanre in The Name Of The Wind, and having to leave your circle of protection to fight the demons with your bare hands in The Painted Man.

Ashana Lian .

P.S. Next up... Empire Of Black And Gold!

You can also check out The Painted Man review from!


  1. This review and just your blog in general led me to start my own blog in which I promote fantasy blogs and artworks. I ramble on about fantasy in general, what I've read, maybe also what I'm working on, etc.

    I chose to promote your site in my second post, so here's a link to that:

    1. Hi Kai! (I watched Legend of Korra last weekend and there's a character called Kai in it, and also ages ago I figured that if I had a son I'd name him Kai, so that name has been in my head a lot lately. O_O Why did I tell you that? I don't know really)

      Thanks for letting me know! I'm glad this blog has inspired you - I'm amazed it even had the potential to motivate someone in that way. XD I'd be glad to check out your blog post, thank you for sharing.


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