This collection actually contains two novella length pieces by Peter V. Brett. Both are set in the universe of ‘The Painted Man’ (‘The Warded Man’ in the US) and concern the actions of one of the protagonists from that series, Arlen Bales. There’s also some other materials – for example, some analysis of the wards that characters in Brett’s universe draw in order to stop themselves being devoured by demons, a vignette with Leesha, one of the central characters of the saga, and a previously-excised chapter from the first novel, giving us a little more insight into Arlen’s childhood.
Lets take the last of these first; the narrative is itself preceded by some notes from the author as to why the scene was deleted. He makes a reasonable argument for its removal, but notes that he had some personal attachment to it, which is why it’s been shared here. It’s actually…pretty good. The reader is introduced to an Arlen even younger than his first previously published appearance. We’re given an insight into his character, into his need to travel, and his need to run. The theme here is one of thwarted constraint – Arlen is portrayed as longing to break free, both from the confines of his village, and from the childhood and life this entails, but being unable to do so. Brett picked this theme up again in the published text of The Painted Man, but this vignette provides even more emphasis. It also gives a slightly broader view of Arlen’s family life – there’s some remarks on his relationship with his parents which aren’t earthshattering, but do add context and texture to that portrayed in the novel this chapter was removed from. It’s narratively sparse, but really does help evoke that tone of fear and confinement that the people in Arlen’s life subsist under at the start of The Painted Man.
Moving on, there are the two novella’s for which the volume is titled – ‘Brayan’s Gold’ and ‘The Great Bazaar’
‘Brayan’s Gold’, is a story focused around one of Arlen’s first runs as a ‘Messenger’, who braves the demon-haunted nights in order to move cargo and news between warded enclaves of humanity. It gives the reader a bit more insight into the world that Arlen inhabits during ‘The Painted Man’ – a westernised fantasy realm with restricted movement and communication and a stratified social structure, where travel is both lucrative and dangerous. It has a lot of scenes that take place in various secured areas, and give the reader some insight into how the deprived, the average and the privileged population of this world manage to maintain themselves.
It also has demons. Lots and lots of demons. Arlen manages to spend quite a bit of his time trying to avoid getting into a fight with a demon, and also somehow managing to fail. There’s some fairly hectic chase scenes, and some genuinely raw and impactful combats. Brett writes fast-paced, gruesome fights, and they’re entirely believable. His non-protagonist characters don’t have quite the same depth, but this is more of a stricture of length than anything else – they’re certainly excellent foils for Arlen, and the reader does get a broader understanding of both the world and Arlen’s character from the narrative. It helps that it’s a page turner; the spaces between action are less lulls, and more necessary breathers.
The same applies to the second novella in this collection, ‘The Great Bazaar’; this one takes place a little before the start of the second volume in the wider series, ‘The Desert Spear’. Here the reader is given an older, more experienced Arlen, and (re-)introduced to Abban , one of the supporting cast from the second book in Brett’s Saga, The Desert Spear. Here, Arlen is sent into the desert wilds by Abban, in an effort to retrieve some priceless pottery from a town destroyed by demons. All does not, as you might expect, go entirely to plan. There’s also a highly convoluted and extremely entertaining sub-plot dealing with Abban’s interactions in the “Great Bazaar” of the title, struggling to deal with the enmity of a wounded warrior-turned-merchant.
As with Brayan’s Gold, this story gives us a great deal of fast-paced action. Arlen manages to do some incredibly stupid things and get away with them, at least partially through luck; but the chases, the fights, they’re page-turners, every one. At the same time, the reader is getting more context for the larger trilogy. Arlen as a younger man, possibly less angry, more easily thwarted perhaps, and not as cunning as he might be – but still driven, still recognisably the protagonist of Brett’s larger series. His careful, respectful relationship with Abban is fleshed out a bit more in this text than it has been before, and gives a new layer of meaning to their interactions in other slices of Brett’s narrative. The Great Bazaar is less of a journey story than Brayan’s Gold, but it feels like it puts a bit more meat onto the bones of extant characters, and it’s a lot of fun to read.
Overall then, this is a pretty good adjunct to Brett’s main series. We’re given a lot of Arlen Bales, to be sure, but Arlen is quite fun to read about. There’s a lot of action, a lot of death-defying, and quite a lot of hectic chases, all of which are a great read. Where all of the narratives in this collection shine though is in the characters – in the quiet moments of interaction, of shared glances, of moments of understanding which help put another layer of humanity, a patina of truth, over them.
The piece with Leesha is good fun, a quirky look at life in Cutter's Hollow. Leesha's on fine form here, slowly establishing her role in village society, and confounding the expectations of those who remember her differently. It's interesting to see this context, this sign of character growth. It feels like a relatively short scene, and it's a satisfying one, though not particularly load bearing - still, it gives us a little more of Leesha's character, and expands the world of Cutter's Hollow slightly, and is a decent quick read.
Overall, if you’re already a fan of Brett’s Demon Cycle books, this is an excellent adjunct to that series. If you’re coming to it fresh, these are perfectly fun standalone novellas – you actually don’t need to have read the rest of the series to ‘get’ them; that said, I’d recommend you do, because if you have, there’s more understanding to be had. In either case, this collection is entirely worth your time.