The first book in Peter V. Brett’s debut series, The Demon Cycle, does a number of things all great epic fantasy books should do to grab readers and never let them go. He has created an interesting world that feels both familiar and yet new and different at the same time. He uses a magic system that is both easily understandable and quite simple, but also incredibly cool. He creates an enemy that is constant and seemingly unrelenting. He has a relatively large cast that he keeps clear and separated, so readers know who is who. Finally, he packs a lot of action and story and character development into the first book to keep readers hungry for the next books in the five-book series.
The Warded Man begins with simple beginnings, as most epic fantasies do, and while the theme of this series is that of the hero archetype that just about any fantasy reader is already familiar with, to shake things up a little, Brett introduces three potential heroes to be. This is a world of demons, which rise up at sunset each night — wood demons, fire demons, rock demons — they exist in most forms, collectively known as corelings, since they rise up at nightfall from the earth, proceeding to wreak havoc, destruction and death on the people of this world. The only thing that can stop them are wards: specific wards of protection to keep them at bay; if they have been correctly done, there is a flare of magic and the demon can get no closer, but if the ward is covered or partially rubbed out, it becomes an open doorway for the demon to enter and kill. The origin and history of these demons is revealed from various viewpoints, though it is not exactly certain where they came from or why this happened; what is known is that each night at sundown everyone needs to be behind the wards, or there will be bodies to clean up at dawn.
Our titular main character is Arlen, a young boy who lives in a simple town that trains its people how to draw wards. Arlen is more skilled than most, with the incredible ability to draw the wards in exactly the right way to grant full protection; he also has many of them memorized, and is a quick learner. After a devastating demon attack leaves his mother almost dead, when Arlen had to rescue her while his father just stared in horror, helpless with fear, she eventually dies and the boy can no longer look the father in the face. He flees in search of the messenger, a man of a particular order who travels the lands to deliver mail and messages, but are also trained in the ways of wards to protect themselves on the roads at night against the demons. Arlen has his own learning experience that is the first part of his long and dangerous quest to become the scary but powerful person known as “the warded man.”
There is Leesha, who is a young, beautiful girl looking to wed the man of her dreams, even though she is just thirteen. But in this harsh world, one’s life expectancy is incredibly short with the demons coming every night, so having every girl becoming a woman when her cycle begins makes sense for the survival of the people and its propagation. In various cities, women who bear children become known as Mothers, important people in society, as producing offspring is a powerful advantage in a world that has untold dead each and every night. When Leesha is shamed by the lies of her man to be she becomes apprenticed to a medicine woman and herb gather, and begins to learn the important power of healing and helping the sick, making her one of the most powerful people in this world.
Finally there is Rojer, who barely survives as a young child from a devastating demon attack that leaves his family dead. Rescued and raised by a jongleur — those who entertain and tell stories to the peoples to brighten their days and give hope to their nights — he learns these arts of simple magic tricks and music, though he is a terrible singer. And yet becoming a master of the violin, he begins to dazzle the audiences, while the jongleur who raised him takes more to drinking and becomes jealous of him. It is as Rojer continues his learning quest to become a master jongleur known throughout the world that he discovers his music playing has unique properties and effects on the demons when he plays to them.
Perhaps the one weak point in the book is the religion, which seems a simple Christian-based one that could’ve been turned into something different and more interesting; and some of the other peoples of the world bare harsh resemblances to our own in too similar ways. Nevertheless, these relatively minor failings are greatly made up for in this brilliant new piece of epic fantasy that deserves to be shelved with the likes of Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, and even George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. It is epic fantasy at its best that takes you away to a strong, believable fantasy world and doesn’t let you leave until you’ve read the last page.
Originally written on March 20, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.
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