I don't know when demons started getting angsty and conflicted, in some cases even soft-hearted and sympathetic, but a good (good meaning "really evil", not good meaning "good") strong demon who delights in destruction and tearing people to pieces is, to me, what demons are really all about.
Peter V Brett's debut novel, The Warded Man, features that kind of demon. These are horrible creatures who come from the Core of the earth, rising up in a misty form at dusk and solidifying to terrorize anyone outside of a warded, or protected, area by shredding them, burning them, chewing on them, and being generally malicious until the poor victims die in agony.
Wards are magic symbols, their origin lost in antiquity, that are drawn on buildings, streets, walls, etc, to keep the demons away. Most people huddle behind these wards in fear, but there are a few who, rather than cowering, confront the demons and use ancient wards to destroy them.
The book follows the careers of three characters - Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer - who eventually come together at a crucial point to test their skills against demon attacks. These three live in a sort of medievalish society, one that engages in the business of farming and trade and trying to survive demon attacks. Peopling the world is a big issue, since the population is literally being eaten away. There is an overlaying of religious conviction (the demons are thought by the religious leaders to be God's curse upon humanity for their sinful ways, including the Pride they fell into during a long-past period of scientific advancement), but most people don't seem to take spiritual beliefs very seriously. In fact, with few exceptions, the people inhabiting this world are as hypocritical and cruel and corrupt and venal as any I've read about. It does remind me of something. What is it, now? . . . Oh, yeah, the six o'clock news. But in real life, I don't hang around with those kinds of people. And I prefer not to hang around with them in the books I read. After about the 247th* sexually suggestive comment directed at her, the character Leesha wonders if that's all anyone thinks about. In this book, apparently so.
Peter Brett is a pretty good writer, better than some I've read in recent years. He starts out with a captivating introduction to his main characters in Part 1. Part 2 is a little more uneven, like sometimes he really envisions the place or the people he's describing, but sometimes he does what I call skim writing. It's like skimming when you read, where you get the basics of what the author's trying to say, but you don't spend the time to really understand the depth of the message and all the nuances. Well, in this case, he writes the basics, but there isn't the depth that there is in other parts of the book, like he's in a hurry to get to the next well-envisioned part.
Another thing that pulled me out of the story is that sometimes characters do an about face in personality, making me think either the author hadn't fully planned things out beforehand, or didn't give enough prior information to make the change less jarring.
There are times when his dialogue doesn't ring quite true, particularly with the younger characters. Leesha as a 13-year-old talks like someone quite a bit older, and 3-year-old Rojer sounds like a 13-year-old.* And sometimes the characters sound like they're right out of an old knights of the Round Table movie or a RPG. But that's less of a problem. At least nobody says "Milord".
And then there's my old complaint about why an author feels he or she has to put a character through such horrific experiences. Brett mentioned in a Q&A that his characters are tested to bring out their true qualities. In the case of Leesha, whose life as a healer seems relatively happy (after getting away from her horrid mother and possessive/braggart fiancé), before she can truly realize her full potential she has to have that life shattered. But I don't understand why that life change has to include a gang rape. If part of her growth process is to lose everything (except her skills as a healer, but including her virginity), why, only a few pages earlier, is she willing to prostitute herself to get passage back to her home town? Talk about a jarring character about-face. (Not that I'm comparing prostitution and rape; I'm just questioning what it was required for her to lose. And why.)
I guess the determining factor is if Brett made me care about his three main characters. And in spite of the occasional "Wha--?!" moment, in the end I did care what happened to them. So in that sense, the book is a success for me. But perhaps only in that sense.
Writing style aside, the story of The Warded Man is an adventurous one. Brett has plotted his story well. The action sequences are compelling and make for exciting reading. They're what really kept me involved in the book. I found myself wondering about where the demons come from and why they do what they do. And when I finished, I had a dozen other questions. Will Arlen visit the Core? Will other demons find a way to fight back? Will Rojer learn to fight? Will Arlen and Leesha find love? Will the Krasians get a clue? Stay tuned for sequels, because this book is the first in a series!
*Not really - I'm exaggerating for effect.