Tired of implied racism and sexism in your fantasy novels? Why not read The warded man, which finally makes these age-old themes explicit!
Since I started to go on a rant about this book in my previous post I figured I should probably just post a review of it.
The warded man (known as The painted man in the UK) is the first book of one of Orbit’s ubiquitous relatively disposable fantasy series. I’m somewhat conflicted about the novel as it is. There’s definitely some potential but the book is so massively problematic that in hindsight it’s almost impossible to call it a “good” book. Unfortunate.
This book made me cry.*
If I haven’t made it clear, this book features and so this post will deal with with issues of incest, sexual assault, child abuse, sexism, and religious/racial/ethnic stereotypes. If you don’t want to experience that then don’t read this post, and don’t read this book. All the objectionable content will be below the cut.
There will also be spoilers.
If you can handle the content but don’t want spoilers, I’ll add the following to the plot summary below: Brett peppers the book with brutal atrocities with little context and few to no repercussions, apparently with the goal of making the book “gritty” and “adult” but serving no purpose – not even in advancing the plot.
*Not difficult. I also cry at jewelry commercials, movie trailers, and couples taking pictures together in Daley plaza.
Arlen is a young boy in a cursed world: every night demons rise from the ground to kill anyone not sheltered by protective wards. Humans are in danger of extinction. Frustrated at the way the populace has passively accepted this fate, Arlen seeks to find some way to fight back against the demonic menace.
So how is it?
As I mentioned in my previous post, it’s the most offensive novel I’ve ever read. I’ll deal with the least terrible examples first. I’ll address positive aspects last, so you can decide for yourselves if the positives outweight the negatives.
Perhaps least offensively, the premise is really full of holes. Despite the fact that the people know the shapes of the wards that will protect them from demons, nobody has thought up the idea of tattooing themselves with wards to create permanent personal protection? There are many, many other problems with the premise as described, that’s just the one that is most glaring. I’d say it would be easy to ignore this if it wasn’t for the other issues in the book.
About two thirds of the way through the book Arlen undergoes an offstage transformation into what can only be described as a superhero. Not only is it obnoxious in the extreme, but the fact that it happens completely unseen despite the fact that Arlen is a point of view character seems bizarre in a book that feels otherwise padded for length. After this point the book reads like a prose superhero comic of the worst kind.
In some ways The warded man feels like the Sword of truth books, or the writings of Frank Miller. The writer seems to operate from the assumption that all men are would-be rapsits. The protagonists are all preternaturally competent, proactive individuals in a world of worthless sheep. Arlen complains regularly about how weak everyone else is, and this attitude goes pretty much unexamined for the entire length of the book. Everyone but the three principal characters are so incompetent it’s a wonder humans haven’t gone extinct.
The problems with characterization don’t end there. All characters are a member of one of four categories
I) Strong active powerful men who are smarter and better than everyone else at everything
II) Weak ineffectual cowardly men
III) Totally evil ruthless men (including all nonwhite men)
Given my complaints, it’s probably obvious that category IV has a lot in common with category II. Women exist entirely as sex objects and vehicles for childbirth. Women, including the female lead, have no agency whatsoever. Any time a woman does express any sort of agency it’s as a prelude to being abused in some way. All of the conversations between women are about sex and/or men. There are also some incredibly creepy descriptions of young, sometimes even prepubescent, children.
Speaking of Frank Miller, there’s also a racist/religious bigotry aspect as well. The only people of color in the book are thinly veiled Arabs, who exist entirely as a collection of negative stereotypes and whose primary role is to take credit for Our Hero’s deeds. This is especially entertaining because the deeds of Our Hero seem to consist largely of grave robbing and not giving a shit. Every time they appear it reads like a Chick tract about the evils of Islam. The fact that the book ends with one of the Muslim stand-ins declaring a holy war certainly doesn’t help.
The other issues stem from the four category problem above, especially the interactions between categories III and IV.
Early on in the book we “get” to experience a father rape his daughter while the eleven year old protagonist and his father allow it to happen, after the victim explicitly asks them for help. I guess it’s to underpin the “these people won’t help themselves or each other” theme, which comes WAY TOO CLOSE to “it’s not rape if the victim doesn’t fight back sufficiently” for comfort.
At least that scene serves some sort of narrative purpose (however poorly), but there’s another incident that made me put the book down and seriously consider whether or not I wanted to finish it.
Leesha, the female lead, is defined entirely around her virginity for the vast majority of the book. The twist is that she’s accused of being excessively promiscuous after rejecting her category III fiancé. The book goes on and on about how she is saving herself for someone special, that she wants sex to be meaningful, etc. It’s so heavy handed that looking back it should have been obvious what was coming: a gratuitous violent gang-rape, which her companion, the one character who straddles categories (I and II), is helpless to prevent, being insufficiently masculine.
ACK ACK ACK ACK ACK.
That was the point where I had to reconsider. I ended up deciding to read on, only to find that it gets worse.
Almost immediately after this experience, Leesha (still in pain from, y’know, the rape) decides she is going to seduce Arlen.
The only in-text justification is that she is afraid that she might be pregnant from one of her rapists and so wants to have a possible father that just has a horrible attitude, instead of one with a horrible attitude and being cartoonishly evil.
Even this questionable justification becomes totally irrelevent because the next thing Lasheen does is take the fantasy equivalent of pennyroyal tea. This makes sense, considering that Lasheen’s only other quality besides her attractiveness and commitment to her own virginity is her training with medicinal herbs. It still invalidates the previous justification about having sex with Arlen.
It gets even worse.
After ensuring that she won’t become pregnant, she has conquered all of her issues surrounding the rape and it’s not dealt with again.
It’s one thing to use rape as a plot device. It’s even possible (though certainly not good writing) to use rape as a lazy form of character development. Brett does neither of these things. Lasheen’s rape serves no narrative purpose, contributes in no way to her character development, and is treated totally frivolously as a result.
I don’t often use profanity, but when I do, it’s in this context.
This issue, more than any other, totally ruins the book for me. I could handle (but wouldn’t condone) a poorly handled but well-intentioned rape scene. I could handle a fantasy novel about a horrifying society where women are exclusively seen as brood mares IF that issue was one that was actively addressed by the plot.
Actually dealing with the consequences of sexual assault seems to be restricted to YA fiction at the moment. I’d welcome a fantasy version of Speak, and in fact I think that one needs to be written. The closest thing I can think of right now is the last two books of the Hunger games trilogy. While it’s not about sexual assault, the portrayal of PTS is incredibly valuable and totally applicable to the kind of book I’m thinking about.
I see that Brent Weeks is a fan, which makes some sense to me. I enjoyed the Night angel trilogy much more than this one, but Weeks’ work is occasionally problematic in similar ways.
On to the good – the pacing is decent and the concept is entertaining enough if you can ignore the plot holes. The whole thing lands just barely on the acceptable side of “right-libertarian propoganda piece”. The dénoument is certainly exciting and the fight seens are on the whole written better than the dialogue (which can be painful at times).
Honestly, I’d give it a moderate without the gang rape and a stronger one without the father-daughter rape and sexualized descriptions of children. Without the obvious Islamophobia it would be an even stronger recommendation. Unfortunately, I can only recommend the book as it is, so it’s a very weak recommendation: read only if you have a strong stomache for some of the most sexist fantasy writing of all time.
As it stands, the criteria I’d use on deciding who to recommend it to: Is the patron somebody who We hunted the mammoth would mock? If so, then it’s the ideal book for them. Otherwise, recommend with extreme caution.
I picked up the second book in the series for 25 cents at a library booksale. I haven’t decided whether or not I’m actually going to read it.
For my cross recommendations, I’d say as with The maze runner consider these as less problematic substitutes, but they also work as recommendations.
Less problematic option:
The night angel trilogy / Brent Weeks– see my comments above
Mistborn / Brandon Sanderson– something about this series bothers me but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Once I figure it out I’ll review it.
The summoner / Gail Z. Martin– totally inoffensive from what I remember
Kushiel’s dart / Jacqueline Carey– If you’re looking for a “sexy” fantasy novel this is probably the one to go for.
The thousand names / Django Wexler– Starts out looking like it’s going to be problematic then goes another direction
The first law trilogy / Joe Abercrombie– pretty much the darkest dark fantasy possible, it features reprehensible characters in despicable situations but handles them relatively well. His later books are better but this trilogy is the most “like” The warded man.
Queer positive and racially diverse:
The traitor spy trilogy / Trudi Canavan
The necromancer chronicles / Amanda Downum– Especially the second volume, The bone palace, which features a trans POV character
The killing moon / N.K. Jemisin
Non-racist Muslim-flavored fantasy:
Throne of the crescent moon / Saladin Ahmed