Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Warded Man/The Painted Man

The quick and dirty: 
Rating: 2 stars
Length: Respectably long, but mostly uses space well (480 pages) 
Publication: This was released in the UK as The Painted Man on March 8, 2008 from Voyager and in the US as The Warded Man on March 10, 2009 from from Del Rey.
Premise: In a world where humanity fears the night for the demon Corelings that rise from the earth, people sit huddled behind their wards and pray to live until the dawn. Three young people hold the potential to do more, though they will take very different paths to get there. Arlen wants to become a Messenger, one of the men who braves the night between towns and cities to carry important news, but his desire to fight the demons will carry him farther. Leesha forsakes her earliest dreams of family to become a healer, guarding the knowledge of the Herb Gatherers in the hope that it can be used to hurt and cripple the demons. Rojer has one crippled hand and dreads the way people who try to protect him die, but his music can charm or repel the corelings. Together, they may manage to lead the world in another war.
Warnings: attempted rape, offscreen gang rape, incestuous abuse, abundant gore
Recommendation: It's....hm. If you're okay with incredibly casual and stupid treatment of rape and don't mind an overly pedestal-perching main character, by all means, don't let me stop you. It's rare for a book this conceptually interesting to annoy me this much. Absolutely get it at a library or on a large sale; this isn't worth paying full price.

The are spoilers down in the red pen section once I start talking about Leesha, partly because I think the "Beautiful Leesha, who has suffered at the hands of men as well as demons" tag on the back of the book is a heavy hint and partly because it's such a badly executed plot twist that I don't care about spoiling it.

Why this one has such promise: 

All three of the main characters are introduced in their childhoods in different traditional situations: Arlen is a poor farm boy who wants to see (and save) the world, Leesha is kind and beautiful but has a horrible mother, and Rojer becomes an orphan when his parents die in a demon attack. Brett does a good job cycling between the three of them, showing the experiences that shaped their personalities while sliding past years at a time. Given that two of them are in seven-year apprenticeships and the third has been living a fairly dead-end life with the closest thing he has to a parent, letting some of the years just fold aside makes sense; I do wish he'd spent more time on the transitions for Arlen and Leesha from young adults to full-fledged ones, since they undergo some fairly dramatic changes in that time. That aside, the young children that they were are definitely reflected in the young adults that they become, which isn't always the case.

Peter V. Brett has absolutely nailed the mood of a world where the humans used to be comfortable but are now slowly dying out. Humans used to be able to fight the demons with the help of the Deliverer and his offensive combat wards, but he vanished when the demons left, and humans turned on each other. Now people are left with only the defensive wards to stand between them and the night, but people still die when the wards fail, and the demons will attack every point on a ward net until they find the weak spot. People like young Arlen think that the demons can be fought, and want to try, but without proper weapons most people are resigned to hiding and hoping that the wards will hold. They still live their lives and plan marriages instead of sinking into hopelessness, since they certainly won't all die in a generation, but there's a certain urgency behind those marriages because people need children to help the population hold steady with so many demons rising from the Core every night.

Each and every fight with the demons reflects that fear, showing that while the demons are not truly intelligent, they're persistent, much stronger than most humans, and often able to kill with a single breath of fire or swipe of their claws. Sometimes people survive attacks, but they tend to do so by finding a safe hiding place, through sheer luck, or because others gave their lives to buy more time to run. When the Krasians of the desert (more on them later) fight the corelings each night, they expect casualties each and every time as they herd the demons through a maze filled with warded pit traps that hold the demons in until sunrise burns them to ash. Old warriors past their prime help bait the demons in the hope of swift deaths in battle, and everyone in the city is either fighting or supporting the endeavor. This bravery is all the more impressive when no one else in the world takes those risks except for Arlen, who learned some of his tricks by fighting among them when he stopped there on his Messenger routes.

Arlen's transition from just Arlen into the full Warded Man starts in the desert, when he's betrayed by his fellow warriors and has to contend with the demons alone in the night. He's already been forced to go up against a demon with nothing but an ordinary spear, and his normal resolve hardens into cold ruthlessness. He tattoos combat wards on his own skin, starting with his palms, and slowly intimidates the demons so much that they start to be afraid. The gore spikes in these scenes, but it feels real enough, and in some ways necessary to his transformation. He uses the force of the wards to compress demon's heads to the point of explosion, and when he needs more food in the middle of the desert, he does the unthinkable and cooks demon meat to keep himself alive. Between the demon flesh and the way his wards build in power as he uses them against demons, he starts to feel like his humanity is pulling away; that struggle is realistic, and certainly going to be a worthwhile component of the rest of the series. The descriptions of him as shaved bald, the better to have clear space for ward tattoos, really do explain why everyone sees him as some sort of walking myth and why he sees himself as broken in some way.

Rojer, the youngest of the lead characters, should have gotten more page time, but what he did have showed promise. His early childhood is a happy blur, but it was shattered when his home's wards broke and the demons attacked. Arrick, a passing Jongleur, pushed his mother down in a panic and caused her death, but he also rescued Rojer from the ruins and had to give up his profitable career to raise Rojer and keep him safe. In exchange, Rojer hid the missing fingers that the demon bit off and learned to be an assistant Jongleur with a bit of juggling and magic and the skill to play truly great fiddle music. In time, when he's on the road at night in a portable circle, he learns that his fiddle playing can make the demons dance, flee from him, or fling themselves at the circle in a crazed attempt to kill him. Leesha doesn't believe him when he mentions the skill, and his frustrated embarrassment, all the more intense because he developed a crush on her after being in her hospit in the city, is really spot-on for a teenage boy struggling to find an identity. 

The red pen: 

One of the most bothersome things about the book from the get-go was the fact that Arlen has the weird token epic fantasy flaw of being too brave and possibly too idealistic; it makes him seem overly saintly in a way that doesn't quite track as real. As a child he's dedicated to protecting the women and wants to fight the demons for himself "like a man should," to the point where he's much braver than his own father, who freezes in a crisis and is afraid of risks. When he reaches the city and sees poor people, he starts asking why people don't help them and give them things, because even in his little town no one let people go hungry and it's not right; his mentor points out that you can't help everyone, which doesn't satisfy him. When he gets to Krasia, he's ready and willing to fight, but he judges the Krasians for arguing with each other during the day because they need to be truly united to fight the demons. In a parallel that must be coincidental, this is almost verbatim the Deliverer of legend's stance about humans fighting each other. 

Essentially, Arlen always has the right morals for the situation, the people of the society he's judging are blind or cruel or completely awful in some other way, and it just doesn't make sense. We see that the people in his village can be just as ignorant and selfish as anyone from the city, and his heart of gold being right regardless of context makes him seem outright just....not human, given that real people, even good ones, can be petty and short-tempered and unintentionally cruel. He occasionally verges on being those things, but the narrative always seems to back him up on being in the right; even when he has the only possible weapon against the demons, he still feels it necessary to step out of the circle alone, miles from civilization, and try to take a demon one-on-one, and it's framed more as an experience for growth than an incredibly childish thing to do.

Brett, unfortunately, is just not good at writing female characters, though several of them had potential. Arlen and Rojer's mothers are fairly generic, which is fine, but the women Arlen meets in the city feel as though Brett's gone out of his way to make every woman in this story except Leesha, the best one, obsessed with marriage and safety. Elissa, the wife of the Messenger who rescues young Arlen in the wilderness, has no children of her own and tries to pull Arlen into that role, which makes him feel disloyal to his real mother; Mery, the daughter of the duke's librarian, shares Arlen's love of learning and truly enjoys his company. By the end of the segment in Miln, Elissa has banned her husband from taking Arlen on safe trips because she wants him secure in the city. Mery has declared that she and Arlen are going to be married and live safely in Miln with him working as a Warder, though she knows that he wants to be a Messenger. She blithely ignores that, sees his dreams as childish fancy, and tries to insist on getting her future at the expense of the one he's chosen. Arlen's (male) mentor and his instructor in warding both want him to be safe, but they're willing to stand back and let him do what he wants, while the collective women provide a smothering emotional blanket.

Village life in Leesha's town is almost worse on that score. Arlen's town seems to be full of mostly okay people, but Leesha's...the entire place is absolutely obsessed with virginity in a really petty way that seems designed to make her look more virtuous. Her later character arc annoys me in much the same way that Giant Thief did, but even her childhood is grating, because that's where Brett has most obviously failed the "show, don't tell" test. When there's been an attack, we're outright told that "Unlike her mother, Leesha really wanted to help her neighbors," because apparently her running straight out the moment dawn hits wasn't obvious enough. There's also a lot of reflection about young girls "flowering," paired with tiresome discussions about who's a tramp. This could all be quite true to the spirit of small-town life, given that minding your neighbors' business is kind of a sport, but it really quickly slides into the mindset of "most guys are scum at best and potential rapists at worst." One man lies about having taken her virginity, others try to grope her, and she has to drug a Messenger's food on the road every night to keep from being raped. This gets even worse when Leesha is on the road again years later, after having mused for a few pages about how she's twenty-seven and still hasn't "given her flower." She is brutally raped soon after, and that story arc is a festering heap of awful that puts the cap on Brett's inability to write sexuality in a tolerable way.

Make no mistake, rape can be a defining character experience and relevant to the plot in ways that work, especially in darker fantasy; however, doing it right is a little like juggling grenades, and Brett dropped several of them squarely on his face. The transition of "Leesha's first experience with sex is being gang-raped by bandits on the side of the road; she cries and shakes briefly, but in the next few hours before she has even finished washing all the blood off her legs she's fascinated by another man, and a few days after that she wants to have sex in the mud for a real first time and wants to have this man's babies, goodbye to any aftereffects" is honestly disgusting. Yes, it could have been a realistic coping mechanism, grasping for something to take the edge off the bad experience; some rape victims choose to have sex as a way to feel in control of their bodies again. But after that segment, we never see so much as a single flash of worry over pregnancy, trauma, physical or emotional pain, or anything else about the rape. It happened, it did its job of making Leesha emotionally vulnerable in her attraction to Arlen, and then the trauma is gone like nothing ever happened. It was a plot point, and, to counter the "it's a dark fantasy, what do you expect, rape happens" line of argument, an exceptionally cheap and unrealistic one. 

This wouldn't be so frustrating if I hadn't seen other authors do it right. Both of the lead female characters in Mercedes Lackey's Oathbound books had been raped before they found each other, and you can see the aftereffects of that trauma, especially throughout the first book. Tarma became a chaste warrior priestess with a need for revenge that leads her into some fairly suicidal fights, and Kethry goes into numb shock when kidnapped by her past abuser, only to come back from it as a stronger person when she confronts him as an adult instead of a helpless child. Even Anne Bishop's Black Jewels series, which is guilty of nigh-infinite crimes against realism, gets this one right.  For a more recent example, Patricia Briggs's main series both feature main characters who have suffered rape and abuse, and you truly notice the aftereffects and slow recovery process woven into the story; they pass milestones of learning to trust again, and they heal like real people who have been through something awful that they can't forget. Both of those characters heal with the aid of male significant others who are interested in sex with them, and in neither case did I want to slap the author, for one simple reason: Briggs doesn't pretend that the right penis makes trauma go away. 

Some of this would be forgivable if Leesha had ever done what she'd planned and trying to discover more Herb Gatherer secrets to fight the demons. After Bruna demonstrated that she could use a potion called liquid demonfire to burn wood demons to ash, Leeha seemed determined to figure out more of that sort of thing. She apprenticed with one of the best Herb Gatherers in the world and then went to a city with many more, so having her only wonder near the very end of the book if she could use corrosive fluids or tranquilizing herbs to fight the demons diminishes her competence somewhat, especially in contrast to Arlen. He's already mastered his art, tattooing himself all over (though someone else would have had to do his back) and fighting the demons for years, while Leesha, who may have even more raw intelligence, just....didn't bother to try, even after almost dying in a demon attack when she was young. The end of the book puts her in a position to learn a lot about demon anatomy and wards as she joins Arlen's quest, but the fact that she didn't try until then positions her power as a side effect of his, which, when paired with the way her rape is framed, strips away a lot of her character's potential strength.

There were some other issues as well, most notably the way that the Krasians are an almost embarrassingly bad collection of Middle Eastern stereotypes about outsiders and veiled women and carpet merchants and many wives, but it really seems like this world has a lot of potential that the characters don't yet. There's also a fairly awful storyline involving incestuous father-daughter abuse while Arlen and his father have to listen through a wall, but that's less a long complaint than a reason to point out that adding more scandal does nothing more than create some attempt at grit. 

All in all, this one is conceptually great, but it's executed in such an annoying way that I wanted to throw it at the wall in quite a few places. Odds are I'll read whatever the author writes after this series, but I won't be bothering with the rest of this one without glowing reviews and access to free copies.

Prospects: The second book in this series, The Demon Spear, came out in 2010. The third, The Daylight War, should probably be out on February 4, 2013.

Enjoyed this? Try: 
~Once again, the Word and Void series by Terry Brooks. The same sense of humanity slowly falling towards a future where demons rule the world and use humans as slaves and food definitely resonates in both series, and the Knight of the Word feels far more human than Arlen does at times. 
~C.S. Friedman's Coldfire trilogy does such a good job with humans hiding from the night in a world that tries to kill them in creative ways; you really feel for every character, and Friedman has a deft touch with ambiguous morality, not to mention a brilliant antihero. 
~Garth Nix's Abhorsen series (young adult and excellent at any age) does a great job with the menace of the undead and demons being held back by the slimmest protections of wards and magic. It also has good characters of both genders. 

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