Despite its many problems (and believe me, they are legion), Peter V. Brett's debut novel The Painted Man is the definition of "moreish." Once you pick it up, you find it hard to put down.
First: the good. The Painted Man takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, where the knowledge of science and technology (and, to be fair, earlier forms of powerful magic) have been lost, and mankind is reduced to eking out a tenuous living by day and cowering in fear from a sustained, interminable demon assault by night.
Demons are "corelings" in the novel's parlance, being evil creatures which emanate from the core of the Earth. This setting is pretty wonderful, smacking both of tried-but-true fantasy tropes (aren't we all suckers for a good human vs. demon war?) and, more intriguingly, of what Mark Charan Newton defines as the "dying earth" paradigm. (You should definitely read his excellent introduction to the Dying Earth here.) All told, the possibilities of the setting alone make for a fun read.
Second: the bad. The problems with The Painted Man begin with its characters. The story follows the lives of three young protagonists, each of whom independently stumble upon some effective means of battling the demon scourge. They inevitably meet up and are forced to acknowledge each other's abilities, although they never quite get around to working together. (Gotta save something for the sequel!) Unfortunately, they're all such obvious tools of the plot that they utterly fail to be interesting, three-dimensional characters - a fact which is made much more problematic by their complete unlikability. There is a lot of whining in this novel. Yes, the protagonists are largely teenagers, and teenagers whine... but this nod to "realism" doesn't make them any more compelling or interesting.
And, as mentioned above, the plot is terrifically predictable.
Third: the ugly. All that aside, The Painted Man is still a reasonably fun read. My major issue with it comes from Brett's characterization of women. Every woman in this novel is obsessed with getting pregnant. No female character, no matter how smart or ambitious, wants anything more than she wants to get married and have babies. What's more, no male character can conceive of a woman for whom marriage and children are not her first - nay, only - priority. What this feels like is a clumsy attempt by the author to imitate the social structures of a pre-industrial world; what Brett achieves, however, is ugly, condescending, offensive, and ridiculously regressive. Men make serious speeches about protecting the wimmin-folk; women intone about how men can't be trusted with certain powerful demon-fighting knowledge and techniques because, you know, they're men and they'll just go off to war with each other instead, leaving all their wives and babies defenseless at home. As a female reader, this left me pretty damned cold.
The worst offense The Painted Man commits, however, comes towards the novel's conclusion. (You can skip this paragraph if you're worried about spoiling a couple of scenes that don't actually have anything to do with either plot or character development.) Two of our three young protagonists are set upon by brigands while journeying between towns, and the female character (a virgin) is brutally gang-raped. Afterward she reflects sadly that a part of her dignity is gone forever (because, in the colossally misogynistic world of The Painted Man, a woman's primary value is in her untainted woman-parts?). Two days following her rape and eternal loss of dignity, however, she's wandered off before sunrise (when the demons are still out and about - I forgot to mention that the protagonists are also all colossally dumb) to pick mushrooms and winds up having her first consensual sexual experience in a mud puddle. AWESOME.
The sequel to The Painted Man is already available to buy. As I won't be reading it, Jared will be reviewing it for your delectation.