Someone recently asked me what I thought the appeal of The Painted Man was. I mean, the book has been through 7 printings and its sequel was a bestseller. At the time, having then yet to complete the novel I said it was its simple premise: Demons rise at night and lay waste to everything that isn’t warded (i.e. painted or carved with magical runes).
To me the sign of good worldbuilding is a world where the reader finds their mind drifting outside the central story, where the world is such that it captures and sparks the reader’s imagination. And with its basic premise, The Painted Man does just that.
The thing is, in many ways I think this is a book that shouldn’t work, and I can see why it troubles some people.
First and foremost, the pacing is all wrong. We have three central characters, yet the story will spend extended times with one character, only then to break to another for an extended time. As a result, when we first go to Leisha’s story I found myself moaning that I didn’t want to hear about the stupid herb gatherer, I wanted more about Arlen. That in itself, should have been a deal breaker.
There’s also the way the story is told, reminding me of when I was ten and the story would grow and grow, almost episodically, morphing as my tastes change. If I was into pirates, then my hero’s adventures would take them to a pirate ship, only to go to a desert as Western’s inspired me the following week. But whilst when Arlen going to the desert feels almost like a different book, it helps the story stay fresh and interesting and most importantly, grow.
There’s also the little, almost silly things, that should break your immersion. The story of the great explorer Marco Rover is so obviously meant to mimic Marco Polo, you want to raise your eyebrows and say “does it have to be so obvious.” But you don’t. Somehow it just adds to the appeal of the novel. And a demon killing horse called Twilight Dancer shouldn’t feel cool. It should feel like a name you give to a My Little Pony.
We start small, in a little hamlet called Tibbet’s Brook, and like Tolkien, Brett pulls the tight camera focus out as the story expands, showing us more and more of his world, so that by the time we’re suddenly in the desert, it just feels like an extension rather than something alien to the rest of the book.
And as the story reaches a conclusion, you notice that threads are being pulled neatly together. What you thought was episodic and unrelated, you suddenly realise was propelling the novel along. I’m not sure if it’s true or not, but by the time I reached the end I felt that it was an end that had always been in mind, whilst before I’d felt it was one of those books that sort of gropes for its own end.
What’s more, I loved the end. It was epic, cinematic, a bit gritty, and very, very cool.
So here’s a novel that could have, should have gone wrong on so many levels, yet became one of my favourite reads of the last year.
Why does it work? I think if I’m honest, you can feel the love that went into this thing, a story that doesn’t try and compromise, doesn’t try and earn your respect, but instead just goes out and tells a damn great story.
Would I recommend it? Hell yes.