My nomination is The Warded Man, by Peter V. Brett.
Now, full disclosure, Pete and I have been friends since high school and are very close. But even if I’d never met the man, I’d still make this pick. The Warded Man is a book that simultaneously honors its roots in “traditional” epic fantasy and expands the genre in a new and exciting direction. With its focus on fear and mankind’s action in the face of it, it is absolutely a novel of its time.
The Warded Man tells the story of mankind tenaciously clinging to life in a world that it can only occupy by daylight. This is because night belongs to the demons: vicious, seemingly immortal creatures that seem to exist for the sole purpose of destroying humanity and all its works. The only defense against them are magical wards, and withdrawing behind their protective patterns—”wardnets”—before sunset is the only guarantee of survival. Humanity simply accepts the loss of the night, save for one boy who decides he won’t be frightened any longer.
Pete has said in countless interviews that The Warded Man, and in fact, the entire Demon Cycle series (of which The Warded Man is the first), was inspired by his observations of 9/11. He lived and worked in New York City when the planes struck the World Trade Center, and was amazed by the reactions he saw in the immediate aftermath. Some stood around stunned. Others ran screaming for home. Others ran into the flames and dust, seeking to lend a hand, heedless of the danger.
This myriad of reactions, and what they said about the people who had them, fascinated Pete. He was amazed by the variety of experiences, choices, and natural factors that shaped the decisions made in crisis. That thinking is on display in The Warded Man, where the characters’ motivations are fully explored, resulting in deeply complex, flawed, and compelling characters on the level of the cast of A Song of Ice and Fire.
But what makes The Warded Man so timely is how those characters aggregate to influence the societies and cultures on display. In The Warded Man, as with the rest of the novels, the culture itself is a character, evolving and changing in a way so few novels ever honestly acknowledge. The Warded Man addresses the mass reaction to fear, the burdens people will bear in an effort to feel safe, and the reactions they have toward those who do not submit to orthodoxy, raising the spectre of a hole in the wardnet of the social order.
Published in 2008, The Warded Man remains eerily relevant four years later, with the whistleblowers Bradley Manning, and now Edward Snowden, rocking the national conscience and challenging systems designed, rightly or wrongly, to help their society cope with fear. The War on Terror has utterly changed the world, and the constant presence of uncertainty has colored our government, society and interpersonal relationships. We are truly living in a post 9/11 world, one fundamentally different from the one that existed on September 10th of that fateful year.
And our art has changed, too. The Warded Man is a highly courageous and relevant example of what fantasy looks like in this new world. With two sequels already published and two more on the way, I’m confident it will remain an important example of the “new” fantasy of our generation.
This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction article. Do you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!