Tremendously strong start, well on the way to a five star read, but about three quarters of the way through, I became extremely disenchanted with characterization and plot jumping. I’ll average it out and call it three and a half stars.
Brett’s world is fascinating: a feudal system at the mercy of demons arising from the earth each night, and the only way to defend against them is through the work of drawn/carved wards. The story begins by following a young boy, Arlen, allowing well integrated world-building as Arlen grows. Brett did a fabulous job of creating the feeling of subsistence living, of huddling behind the doors each night and the race to get daily chores done by dusk to prevent demon attacks. Before Arlen reaches teen years, the point of view switches to a young girl, Leesha, and then on to another boy, Rojer. Their tales are equally interesting, although Rojer’s is significantly shorter; it was almost as if someone said “enough exposition, let’s move on.” Leesha experience and creation was well done, and I got a great feel for what it must be like to be female and growing up in a village. Then we move to the city of Miln, and Arlen’s life takes a sharp turn; in short order he is apprenticed to a Warder and planning to be a Messenger.
Section 2 of the book focuses on the teenage years, roughly speaking, so for Arlen that means his apprenticeship in Miln, Leesha her apprenticeship as a Herb Gatherer and Rojer’s own apprenticeship as a Jongleur. This section is much shorter, a mere 88 pages to the 158 of the first section, although it felt anemic, as the time period of growing into adulthood makes for rapid and significant changes. Oddly, what seems to happen to these three is that the “moral code” of their childhood selves solidifies, becoming a kind of arrested development.
The final section is what caused rapid downshifting in enjoyment and rating:
Section three is where Brett seriously tested my belief in the characters he created and the world he built. We next catch up with Arlen three years after he’s left Miln. He’s in some mysterious ruins (aren’t they all), discovering wards and a heavily warded spear. He takes the spear he’s found to the city of Krasia, which is clearly modeled on every stereotype about Middle Eastern desert tribal culture. That’s right: warrior men, women that do all the labor, cripples are in the untouchable class and outsiders are “considered cowards.” Arlen shows them the spear, fight corelings alongside them, and for his reward, is thrown into a pit weaponless to fight his way free of corelings. Yes, that’s right; the boy that spent every day in study–who had to be told by his master to go play outdoors with the other kids–is suddenly an expert in hand to hand combat.
Once he becomes the tattooed man, his physical skills increase. I found suspension of disbelief seriously threatened in this section; one, Arlen’s becoming the perfect warrior: highly intelligent, creative (we knew from work with the wards) and now physically amazing. It’s always a little annoying when your protagonist becomes superhuman, and I really don’t feel Brett gave us enough justification for getting there. Two, I mention again his entire teenage youth spent in the library or crafting, except on Sundays when he studied physical skills with Ragen, and riding around on horses with Mery once they become more intimate? How exactly did he get amazing? Three, Arlen was afraid to make wards into the spear, because they would be damaged with the attack, but he’s not afraid for his tattoos? Break tattooed skin and scarring mars the tattoos. Later we get the justification that he’s started to absorb magic from the demons when he destroys them.
I think this is when my credibility stretched and snapped. Oh, now Arlen is magical as well? And the first in centuries to discover this? Then, by the time he meets Leesha and Rojer, he’s riding a war charger he bred and trained to stand with him against demons. Like a little selective breeding and horse training wouldn’t take another three years and be a whole new set of skills. So now he’s a natural warder, a scholar, an amazing fighter, a subsistence forager and hunter and now a horse trainer? Doesn’t strike me as possible within the boundaries of the world Brett set up. It felt like suddenly we have the Epic Hero, but we missed out on the process of getting there. The lavish detail showing in their childhoods and world building is suddenly cut down to bare bones.
The rest of the book became kind of a chore to finish, as my enjoyment in the world Brett created was spoiled by the metamorphasis of his lead into an invincible superhero. I found the moment of sommersaulting in the air and double-heel-striking two corelings annoying–how did I get in a Jet Li movie? The immediately doomed love scene between him and Leesha was a complete letdown in it’s unoriginality. He immediately decides it needs to end because he must be part demon and his “seed is tainted.” Yawn. Like we didn’t get an enormous diatribe on how Leesha learned to prevent pregnancy at part of her training. We get the stereotypical dual stomp-off instead. Leesha becomes mother figure to village and alternates between tears and screaming at people. Sigh. What happened to our more thoughtfully created female? [END SPOILERS]
I really loved the beginning and spent hours wrapped up in the book. Once section three came along we switched into Epic Fantasy Action Hero mode and I lost a lot of enjoyment. That said, world building until then was solid. Language use was well done. Plot believable (until then). I down rated this from a “must buy” to a “borrow” book.
Three over-compensated stars.