Friday, May 7, 2010

The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett

The Warded ManIt's always interesting to find a new author, and I'm not disappointed in the discovery of Peter Brett (I think I heard about him on Orson Scott Card's web site). The Warded Man is the story of three children, Arlen, Leesha and Rojer, whose lives are horribly uprooted by separate yet related tragedies. The story is set in what appears to be a future timeline - at least there is mention of a previous age of machines and technology - when "demons" emerge from "The Core" each night when the sun goes down, to kill and destroy. There are several different types of demons; wind, sand, fire and wood, and while they each have their own distinct appearance and abilities, they all seem consumed by a nearly mindless ferocity and hatred of humans and their works.
The only thing which stands in their way is the efficacy of human-created "wards", geometric drawings which bar the demons from specific locations. The wards can be drawn on buildings, in stone or dirt, or on lacquered wooden plates to form warded circles for travelers to use when night falls.
When Arlen's mother is killed by the demons, and he watches helplessly as his cowardly father does nothing to save her, he is driven to leave his home and set out on his own, traveling with one of the local duke's Messengers (yes, with a capital M).They reach the city of Angiers, and he takes apprenticeship with a master Warder there, with the goal of eventually becoming a Messenger, himself.
Leesha's village suffers a catastrophic attack by the demons one night, and when she displays a talent for healing, she is noticed by Bruna, the local master Healer. Leesha had been looking forward to a normal life in the village, marrying the man to whom she was promised, bearing children, becoming a respected Mother, but when her betrothed betrays her, slandering her reputation in the village, she decides to leave her family home and become Bruna's apprentice.
Rojer's family is also killed by the demons, during the visit of a Messenger and the Jongleur who travels with him. With nowhere else to turn, the Jongleur, Arrick Sweetsong, takes him along on his travels, and eventually takes him on as an apprentice, too. He's not the best at this trade, but Rojer's one distinguishing talent is playing the fiddle. His playing is so good, in fact, that not only does he enthrall human audiences, but demons dance to his tune.
After the scene is set, we jump forward about seven years, when each of our protagonists have finished their apprenticeships, and begin to make their own way in the world. The tone of this novel reminds me strongly of some of Robin Hobbs' work, in that each of them continue to face hardship, loss and challenges along the way, and you begin to wonder how they're ever going to get through these events. Eventually, Brett draws these three separate threads of the tale back into a single cord, and our heroes end up, if not in a necessarily better place than where they started, with at least a better understanding of who they are and who they might become.
I'm also always interested in finding a new "magic system" in fantasy novels, and Brett has something different here. Unfortunately, he just throws it out there and then seems to forget about making it either systematic or understandable. For instance, in the early part of the novel, the master Warder berates Arlen for creating wards without any knowledge of geometry, telling him how dangerous that is. Arlen then goes through seven years of apprenticeship to learn the craft of warding, but we never hear another word about how geometry applies to warding.
When Arlen first arrives in the city, his master is excited to hear about the "new" wards Arlen learned to use in his remote village, and there's mention that each master Warder in the city has his own proprietary book of wards, and it's implied that different locales and regions each have their own wards. Later on in the book, Arlen discovers some lost wards in the ruins of a city, and these are all added to the number of wards in the total set of wards. If there really are some mathematical theories behind why a certain type of drawing functions as a ward, and others do not, then how can there be so many wards. Can we just draw something at random and assume it's a ward, and maybe we just haven't figured out its function yet?
A couple of times it's mentioned that the exact positioning of each ward in respect to another ward is crucial. If they're knocked out of alignment, the protection of the wards can fail. Arlen discovers the lost runes, carved on a spear, that make the spear both an offensive and defensive weapon against the demons. When the spear is stolen from him, he tattoos the wards on his own body (hence the title of the book), and he is able to battle demons with his bare hands, and his skin itself is warded against them. If the positioning of wards is so crucial, how can wards that are placed in fixed positions on a rigid object act in the same manner on a thing so malleable as the human body?

Despite some of these issues, it was an enjoyable read, and I've placed a hold on the sequel at my local library.

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