The Warded Man is Brett’s US debut just released in Mass Market (originally released last year) this year prior to the second volume in this series The Desert Spear. The Warded Man takes place in society overwhelmed by a culture of fear thanks to nightly attacks by demons who rise from the Earth. The story centers around three characters Arlen, who wants to fight demons; Leesha a young woman apprenticed to a herbalist; Rojer an apprentice jongleur whose family was murdered by demons.
Of these characters the most familiar, and the most approachable is Arlen whose righteous indignation at his people’s unwillingness to fight leads him on a quest both heroic and tragic. Arlen’s tale is the one that follows the heroic archetype most closely: a young boy from humble origins with a special skill/power who experiences a tragedy that spurs him on a quest to save his people. In truth I think the familiarity of Arlen’s quest, the originality of Brett’s world, and the frequent action his narrative shows makes both Rojer’s and Leesha’s tales slightly less interesting.
That isn’t to say that the stories of Rojer and Leesha aren’t interesting it’s just that they don’t immediately seem to fit into the grand scheme of the story. Arlen’s role in whatever overarching plot that Brett has in mind is fairly obvious but the same can not be said for either Leesha or Rojer. Much of their narratives are given over to their personal trials and tribulations. Both Leesha’s prospects of marriage and Rojer’s desire to be a jongleur take a significant amount of narrative space. Both are slowly drawn into the greater plot but that doesn’t negate the fact that to start every time the narrative switched to Leesha or Rojer I groaned a little.
Perhaps the hardest part of dealing with those narrative shifts is that some of the best action scenes occur during Arlen’s chapters. In particular Arlen’s one on one pit fight with a sand demon remains a high point in terms of action. Both Leesha and Rojer also get their chances to shine though in different ways than the action heavy Arlen. Leesha’s chapter’s are used to explore the role of women, and the particular dangers they face in the demon infested world that Brett has created. Leesha’s fending off an unwanted suitor contains elements both comical and disturbing; the latter particularly a result of the possessive nature of the man’s interest and Leesha’s mother’s push to get her daughter married regardless of what Leesha actually wants. In a world besieged by demons on a nightly basis population is something of an issue. As a result the conventions of the society set forth in The Warded Man have resulted in women being urged to bear children; particularly male children. It is a sad bit of world-building where-in the status of women in Brett’s world is determined by whether or not they have born male children. Leesha is more or less intent on defying the convention by using her considerable knowledge of herbcraft and medicine to prove her worth beyond simple breeding.
Initially I found Rojer’s chapters the hardest to get behind we meet him at a young age and again his part in the story isn’t really clear at first. Later though, when we discover his particular skill with the fiddle, and his growing confidence in himself and his abilities things smooth out a bit and his story becomes an enjoyable ride in it’s own right; though it is a story peppered frequently by tragedy. Both Leesha’s and Rojer’s stories come together rather smoothly the reintroduction of Arlen into the tale, and his crossing path’s with the other characters didn’t quite gel for me. Even worse I found Leesha’s amorous attentions towards Arlen and sudden seeming recovery after an off-screen gang rape speaks less to the strength of her character (which is definitely there) and rather more towards a need to move the narrative forward at an adequate pace. In truth I’m not sure I saw the need to suddenly turn Leesha into a victim at all as the traumatic event seemed little more then a footnote to the greater narrative; in particular her almost immediate attempts to have sex with Arlen left a sour taste in my mouth. Is it enough to turn me away from the novel? No, but it did little to endear me to Brett’s writing nor do I think the scene, or the narrative intent behind that scene, stands shoulder to shoulder with best of Brett’s ability.
Despite my misgivings regarding the scene mentioned above I found The Warded Man to be on the whole an enjoyable debut that was difficult to put down. Religion is a current running through the novel that is examined briefly and is contrasted nicely through the more scientific and rational leanings of both Arlen and Leesha. It is an element that looks to be examined more closely in The Desert Spear and I for one look forward to seeing how the role of Deliverer (the novel’s prophetic saviour) plays out. The Warded Man is available in mass market from your seller of choice while The Desert Spear should be available in hardcover (both can be purchased as an ebook). If your looking for a new dark-toned epic fantasy then you should definitely give The Warded Man a shot.