I’m definitely one for picking new books to read based solely on their covers. That’s changed somewhat since I started reading on a device rather than books, but generally, if the jacket looks rad, I’ll make the assumption that the meat inside it will follow accordingly. Occasionally I’ve been horribly wrong, but for what I enjoy reading, at least in a fantasy sense, I get it right more often than not.
So I’d seen The Painted Man (Peter V. Brett) on the shelves for ages, and thought it looked vaguely interesting (the cover, that is), but just not enough to compel me to actually pick it up and inspect further. The edition in NZ has a sort of orange palette with a dude on the front covered in tattoos. The main reason I bought this was that it was half the price as an ebook, and also because it’s got demons in the blurb, which is almost always enough to entice further study.
Three books later, and I feel as though I’m ready to share that enticement around, and to warn people. The first book, as previously stated in another blog post, is largely consumed with the establishment of the story’s main protagonists. This time in a series of unconnected plotlines alighting on key points in the lives of each character, with eventual convergences that funnel down into a pleasing and satisfactory climax. Fairly straightforward, and engaging enough to make me jump right into the second.
There was much going for that first book; it did indeed have demons, and a believable and inventive slant on magic, and the use thereof. We have the usual fantasy pre-set world of dark-ages Europe (juxtaposed with an extremely close representation of ancient Persia/Arabia, but more on that later) that is terrorised by the nightly scourge of indecently boisterous demons. That they only come out at night is a good touch, as is the magic the humans use to repel them, through the cunning use of squiggly lines drawn on things like buildings and fences. All in all, the set-up couldn’t be better. In a world terrorised by beasties, two men rise up to lead the attack against them. We should be in for a gripping round of furious battles and outrageous feats of magic, yes?
Well, yes and no. With demons as your chief antagonist, who are basically a pack of mindless monsters, the jeopardy becomes somewhat reduced. The demons quickly become fodder, and the menace of them is significantly lessened. Indeed, from book two onward, conflicts between man and horned monstrosity become almost plot-devices, and a much needed injection of action into otherwise drawn-out sequences where all the humans seem to be doing is getting upset with each other. When the jeopardy of your main bad-guys is quickly spent, you must then create it within your human world, and so Brett did to the nth degree.
But he did it masterfully in book two (the Desert Spear), where it seemed he tired of his boring, hum-drum dark-ages Europe characters and their petty squabbles, in favour of the much more interesting desert kingdom, and its colourful peoples. In fact, this plot-line is so well realised, so detailed and rich, that I wonder if he shouldn’t have just stayed there for the entire thing. There are a hundred names to remember as we are toured through a host of rituals and elaborate caste and political structures, and are subjected to a detailed essay about the inequality between sexes. The other plot-lines become almost unwanted and tedious sideshows as we follow an extended series of flashbacks that bring one of the chief characters back up to the present. Oh yeah, there’s still demons aren’t there, better throw in a quick fight at the end of the book to remind everyone why they’re reading the thing in the first place. To elaborate on that, smart demons appear and bring a new danger with them, only to be killed in the very last chapters of the book. But hey, now that they’re dead, we can get back to the ever-so interesting squabbles and mundane relationships of the humans, hurray!
I picked this behemoth of a story up to be entertained. And for the most past I was, but to my mind there was one serious flaw that almost turned me away completely. By book three (The Daylight War), the story had turned into a Mills & Boon novel. With demons. There’s only so much character development you can do before you run out of new things entirely, and they simply start to stagnate, so to spice them up, the story suddenly became full of sex. And not just the artful type often found in movies, where you have the old meaningful looks, the light caresses and a passionate kiss followed by a tight scene-cut to the next morning tangled in each other’s arms bathed in soft golden dawn sunlight. Oh no. Just as this book’s action sequences are richly choreographed and full of all the gory bits, so are its love scenes. And there are too many of them. While this may titillate bored soccer mums and idle housewives and dirty middle-age gamers with lifetime subscriptions to ultra-mega-porn-universe.com, to the average fantasy reader who just wants a bit of violence and some kind of epic quest set in a well-imagined world, it’s a bit ridiculous.
This was the first time I’d ever skipped entire sections of a book, just to get past completely unnecessary and unnecessarily graphic sex scenes, and by the end of round three I was relieved to make it back to my corner still conscious. And in need of a cold shower. Only it wasn’t done with me yet. Little did I know that rather than a trilogy, it’s due to continue for another two books. Because I’m already engaged, I’ll indeed read them, but this time dread more awful human drama rather than another demon attack. The one conflict that all three books had been alluding to, and gearing up for (and which admittedly was the only thing that kept me reading), happened almost as an afterthought in all of about five pages. In fact I almost missed it. When the world’s two most powerful humans face off, you expect it to be awesome, right? It was, but only for a brief moment. Still, it ended on a whopper of a cliff-hanger, so I have no complaints there.
I may come across harsh in my criticism of this series. Don’t get me wrong, on the whole I’m enjoying it. It’s just that five books could have easily been condensed into three. The mode of magic is great, the demons themselves, and the fact they might not be as mindless as you might think, is a delight to read. And while it might take itself a little more seriously than, say, The First Law trilogy, making for some pretty dry reading at times, it is a very well written story. Generally when a fantasy story dips into a trough between actions sequences, the one thing that keeps a reader glued to the page is interesting character interaction. Some books do this with comedy, or good dialogue, or some sort of mystery. This series is so long that these troughs make up the bulk of the work. Three books would have mitigated this somewhat. I just hope that the next two have a little more action and a little less gripping throbbing members and gobbing on each other’s naughty bits or I might just find myself willing to concede defeat.