Entering a new fictional world that might take up dozens or even hundreds of hours of your time is no small thing; those first few hours are decisive as they can either mesmerize or let you down. The Warded Man hooked me, and it did so in several ways. First of all, the atmosphere of fear and constant danger that oozes across every page through the first half of the novel is nothing short of impressive. It’s owed to one of the most original renditions of demonic entities I’ve come across in recent memories – the demons. These appear as soon as the sun is down, every single night, filled with malice and hatred for humans. The only thing that keeps them at bay are the wards, magical symbols of protection etched into wood, stone and cement. Thanks to these and these alone does humanity survive, whether in great walled cities or in tiny villages, spread throughout the land, often cut off and isolated from one another. But wards are not failproof; the demons possess base cunning and test them time and again. If any of the wards are weakened or imperfect, the demons will find the weakness and break through.
What follows is a merciless slaughter, the kind only fanatical, thoughtless hate can inflict upon innocents. It’s evil made manifest. How humanity responds to that at the time of the book’s opening is not too difficult to picture; the time for fighting has long since passed and fear has nestled deep in the hearts of men. There’s no fight left in most of them and those in whom resistance still burns bright are the blazing exception. The demons can’t be hurt by conventional weaponry and trapping them until dawn is tough work, demanding sacrifice that most are unwilling to pay, and bravery none possess. And who could blame them? If creatures materialised out of smoke outside my home every day and spat venom or fire, or were fifteen feet high and made of rocks, I wouldn’t be bursting with bravery, either.
But you know who is? The foremost of our main characters, Arlen. We follow his life from a young boy suffering through tragedies and disillusionment all the way to adulthood. Arlen is fuelled by the injustices of the world and his own pain and loss in equal measure, pushed to right the wrongs of the world. Along the way, he stumbles more than once, is led astray by his thick-headedness and a number of other flaws, very nearly loses his humanity even. I’m keeping away from spoilers so I don’t take away anything from you, dear reader, though I desperately want to discuss his transformation over the course of the novel – it’s that good!
The other two main Point-of-view characters, Leesha and Rojer don’t have nearly as much text to shine in but shine, they do! Rojer, who is the youngest of them all and whose PoV picks up when he’s a mere four years old, is easy to like throughout, for his boyish good looks, kind nature and prodigious skills with the violin. Leesha, too, is beyond intriguing; a young, beautiful woman who goes through her share of hardship at the hands of a tyrannical mother and much more.
While the demons are the main source of conflict in the book, they’re far from the only one. From friends turned traitors to vengeful jongleurs and jilted lovers, each of our three characters suffers nearly as much hardship from human hands as from demonic claws. But for every character worth despising, there’s a supporting character that’s deep, immensely likeable and even badass! Take for example Bruna, the ancient crone that teaches Leesha herbalism. In addition to her vast knowledge of healing, Bruna also has a stick that she’s not afraid to use on anyone, as well as some very useful powders for misbehaving people and demons alike. That’s one badass granny! Or Cob, the messenger who risks his life every night on the road, trading with village merchants and gathering news from afar.
Other reviewers have pointed this out, and it’s a 100% true: The Warded Man is a coming-of-age novel about these characters, and it’s a solid one. Their individual journeys are beyond thrilling and manage to sketch out different facets to a well-executed, original fantasy world that feels rife with potential. My score for Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man is 4.5 out of 5.
You might want to read this if:
- You like excellent worldbuilding;
- And coming-of-age stories with strong lead characters;
- You’re curious to see a different take on several familiar tropes: farmer-turned-saviour, farmer-turned-bard, non-farmer-but-almost-turned-herbalist, demons with an elemental spin;
- You like your reads with plenty of interesting side characters;
- A cool magic system;
- Fantastic narration of the audiobook version, courtesy of Clin Mace;
- And more! Prob'ly!