The way this started was with me being sick. And, being sick, not feeling like I had the attention span to actually settle down to read something—and being rather uninterested/uninvolved with the books that I'm currently reading on the Nook—I decided that I should really start to go through the many many book samples that I have on my Nook and start to weed out the ones that really don't interest me.
This seemed like an absolutely brilliant idea…except that the first two samples I went through—Jim Beaver's memoir which I've been waffling about forever and a book I picked up from a Goodreads friends favorable review, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake—were both interesting and good enough that I wanted to buy them and they were both $10+, which I was unwilling to spend at this moment in time for a number of reasons that I won't go into lest I completely derail this post. In any case, after yet another nap (because, you know, sick) I woke up and decided to try again.
The next sample on the list was a book that I don't even remember where I heard of it or why I picked it up, The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett (Goodreads link). I have no memory attached to this title/author at all, but it's there, so I clearly must have had a reason at some point. So I crack open the sample—a very satisfying one at 25 pages—and start reading. Around page 20 of the sample, I check the price: 6 bucks and change. I waffle about it a bit, think about how few books have actually caught my attention in a good way lately and decide to take the plunge.
It was not a perfect book. There were some random POV changes, mid-scene, into characters that we never hear from (in a POV sense) scattered throughout the book. I don't know if the print book was the same, but the ebook has some annoying typos and formatting errors also scattered throughout the text. And I feel like before I talk about the book to anyone I want to hang a huge sign that disclaims: I HAVE SOME HUGE HETERONORMATIVE ISSUES WITH THIS NOVEL.
But, all that being said, it was a pretty damn good read. And I already bought the second book.
(Spoilers beneath the cut; trigger warning: rape)
The premise of the book feels like things I've seen before, elsewhere: the post-apocalyptic civilization that's gone round the bend back to medievalism, the incursion of otherworldly creatures (in this case demons) that have destroyed or almost destroyed civilization, including key knowledge on how to fight/defeat said otherworldly creatures, the warrior/healer/bard split of the three main characters…but I think that Brett actually does a lot to breathe new life into those familiar tropes and bring them into a world that feels fully realized and wholly engaging.
As noted above, it does fall into a lot of the same (boring) heteronormative traps; for the most part, the (white) men get to have all the adventures and do all the heavy lifting while the most that the women have to hope for is to breed early and often, to help keep the population up. There are no queer characters at all. And the one disabled character, the bard, who is missing two fingers, is relegated to the back with the women. Early on, I was pretty close to just tossing the book aside, wondering if—with its talk of a Creator and the demons being a Plague on the sinful—I'd accidentally stumbled across a piece of Christian propaganda fiction, but I did press on and, in the end, I'm glad that I did.
Though the gender stereotyping and heteronormativity is there—and annoying—I feel like its largely unconscious (which doesn't really excuse it) and I feel as though Brett did make and try to make some mitigating choices.
Let's start with Leesha. Leesha is the main female character and falls into a lot of stereotypes both for women in general and for women in high fantasy in particular. In the beginning I was pretty disgusted with her, a weepy thirteen-year old obsessed with marrying her promised beau and bearing him lots of babies. Admittedly, part of her motivation was wanting to get out of her parents' home and away from her appalling mother. As well, I think Brett goes on to show (somewhat) that a lot of her thinking is that of a very young girl who hasn't been taught to think or want any better. For all the really deep heteronormative 'omg get married and make babies' fervor of the society at large, there's a thread running through the main characters' stories of wanting something different and striking out to find it, even when you're not sure what it is or where to find it. At the same time, virgin (at least until her inevitable gang-rape) and virginal, ravishingly beautiful—but unable to find the right man, at least until she meets Arlen—and a dazzlingly accomplished healer who abhors violence, she falls into a great many of the female stereotypes of high fantasy, including existing mainly to be a foil for the real hero of the piece, Arlen (as evidenced by how—only a day or so after her brutal rape at the hands of multiple assailants—she immediately wants to make sweet sweet love with Arlen and bear his babies).
However. The fact is that Leesha does have an arc of her own and only a very small part of it involves Arlen at all. Though her main desires still seem to be that of romantic pairing and childbearing, it's abundantly clear that Leesha wants to also do other things with her life, including put herself in danger to fight against the demons that have taken so much and terrorized them all. And though in the typically 'feminine' class of Healer, Leesha doesn't lack for bravery or courage, fighting for her own life and choices with the same ferocity that she fights to defend her friends, loved ones and fellow villagers. So there's that.
Brett also gives us a variety of female characters as players in his story, some good, some bad, some indifferent, so we're not (entirely) forced to pin all our hopes and identification on Leesha and if there is a huge overall preoccupation with baby-making and motherhood, it does, at least fit in with Brett's vision of a humanity teetering precariously on the edge of extinction.
In the same way, I'm of two minds about Rojer's arc. On the one hand, though disabled and not a warrior, Rojer isn't shown to lack for courage or smarts, standing up to the adversity in his life and demons with the same derring-do. The story doesn't make less of him for not being a warrior and makes much of the importance of a Jongleur (bard)'s skills. At the same time, the only romantic action we see Rojer get is an unrequited crush on Leesha which, as she gravitates toward Arlen (who, to be fair, is closer to her age), fits in with a long history of not seeing the disabled as sexually viable. As well, whatever small glimmering of regard Leesha had for Rojer is shown to be pretty thoroughly squashed (from my reading) when he's unable to defend or prevent her from being raped which does penalize him, in some sense, for not being a warrior. So I don't know. On the one hand, scrappy and brave and a tough survivor of a string of horrible misfortunes, as well as a musical talent that can mesmerize even a demon. On the other hand, not good enough to get the girl and of limited use in a fight, as opposed to Arlen, who gains literally inhuman super powers by the end of his arc. And if I'm not sure exactly what Rojer's place is/will be by the end of the projected trilogy, I feel confident that it isn't hitched to Arlen's in the same way Leesha's is. So there's that.
Last among my complaints is the depiction of the one nation of brown people, the desert dwellers of Fort Krasia. From language to appearance to dress, the Krasians are clearly derived from unspecified Arab peoples and, as mentioned above, they're the only non-Caucasian peoples mentioned in the entirety of the novel. Their depiction is, at the outset kind of a mixed bag; on the one hand, they're the one people who still actually make an attempt to fight back against the demons rather than hiding behind their wards. On the moon hand, they're depicted as being a little eccentric/crazy for this (in the best tradition of the Noble Savage) and, as a result of their encoded religious beliefs about fighting against the demons, they're even closer to extinction than all the white nations.
And, while on the one hand, Brett's world is full of "bad" characters—greedy, stupid, venal, adulterous, cowardly, etc., etc., there's generally also "good" characters to off-set the bad. However, of the few Krasians we see, the merchant (whose name I forget) is shown as venal and cowardly and the warriors that had grudgingly come to call Arlen friend over the years turn on him the moment he has something they want—the Spear of the Deliverer—without even the courage to kill him themselves, instead throwing to him a demon and turning him out into the desert respectively. There are no good Krasian characters that we see.
Too, outsider Arlen's observations of the 'exotic' culture of the Krasians carry a familiar weight of colonialist fetishation, on the one hand admiring the Krasians for their relentless courage in facing down the demons, even though it results in heavy attrition, and on the other shaking his head over the Krasian caste system where women do most of the heavy lifting and are yet still considered chattel and hidden behind harem walls and burqa.
This is even more worrisome as the Krasians are apparently going to figure hugely in the second novel, with the Krasian warrior Jardir taking credit for Arlen's discovery of the spear and declaring himself the Deliverer.
Lined out like this, I feel like this says that I didn't like the book very much at all. And, seeing my reasons/reservations enumerated thus, I worry that maybe I shouldn't like the book very much at all, but the truth is that, for all these reservations, I did like the book. Very much so. These days, it's hard for me to find a book that can sweep me up and carry me off wholesale to its world the way that The Warded Man did with seemingly little effort. For the span of time that I was reading it, I was in it, caught up in the joys and sorrows and realness of the world, breathing that alien air and standing on that alien ground. It's a feeling that happens too rarely in my old age and never fails to delight when it does. And, even with my reservations and worries, I'm still holding out pretty high hopes for the second book, The Desert Spear.
We'll see how this goes.