THE WARDED MAN
The Warded Man falls into an interesting genre I rarely see well done; fantasy post-apocalypse, with a scientific world like ours preceding the world of magic. The book started out strong, but I found myself growing less enthralled as it bore on. The Warded Man is an origin story. Multiple origin stories, technically, but it's really only one. Arlen, our titular hero, is a young boy who lives in a world where demons rise out of the ground each night in near endless numbers, hungry for living flesh, only to be repulsed by magic wards rediscovered from ages past. There are two other characters, Leesha and Rojer, but they are obviously secondary to Arlen, being given some twenty percent of the book altogether.
This is a world where demons are mostly considered invincible. The demons come in delightful elemental varieties: fire, wood, wind, rock, sand, but all share a sort of classic semi-reptilian devil theme. For good or ill, the flame demons often reminded of the Night on Bald Mountain scene from Fantasia, albeit these are far more dangerous. Rural populations hide inside warded homes, while a few Free Cities stand encased in great warded walls, but even within those, people still hide inside at night. Only one Free City, Krasia, home to Arab-themed warriors, fights at all, and I believe the number in the book lists their male population (the only important one, apparently, since the men do all the fighting) as only eight thousand. This is a world where humanity has very much lost the war against demonkind, and very much forgotten who they were. Since the world of my current WIP is somewhat similar in its genre, including magic tattoos, I was obviously interested to see how well this lost knowledge and rediscovery was handled. Apocalypses are popular settings, even LOTR can be considered to be post-apocalyptic, but the apocalypse is so long gone that the world is quite stable, with only ruins to remind them of the dangers of the past (until, of course, that apocalypse comes again.) The Warded Man's world is something like this, the time being some 300 years after the demons returned, ending millenia of peaceful scientific progress. At least in this book, it's not clear how far that science got. The only mention of any sort of electrical work is a description of an ancient building with "wires for hanging pictures" which may just mean that, but my imagination went there. There's no guns or anything else like that; the only weapons seem to be spears, and rarely tipped with metal. The only wards known are defensive, and weapon and armor warding appear to be mostly forgotten.
I wouldn't spend so much time on this, but it's Arlen's whole story. He is the only brave one, besides, to a lesser extent, Rojer, and to an even lesser extent, Leesha. He is born with a natural talent for Warding, and a natural bravery. His life is simple in the small farming town where he lives as an inexplicable only child -- considering how much making babies is spoken of in the rest of the book, it's astonishing he doesn't have siblings. Arlen fantasizes about fighting back against the demons, but takes the advice from his elders, especially his father, that fighting is something left to a last resort. Inevitably, situations resolve that result in demons attacking his family, and Arlens mother is mauled, in part because Arlen's father refused to leave the warded house to help them. She dies from her wounds after we are treated to a scene of hillbilly incest (not explicit) and Arlen runs away, surviving a few nights by scratching ward circles in the dirt -- dangerous because wind or a footprint or a falling twig or rain could easily obscure the wards and allow the demons inside. Arlen ends up maiming a demon and making an enemy, and proving that they can be hurt, and that individuals do stay, and die. He ends up finding a Messenger, who are exactly what you think they are, glorified magic mailmen/tax collectors. They carry portable circles and have warded shields and are basically the only people who travel between the Free Cities, besides a few heavily guarded caravans trading essential goods. Arlen pretty much consistently proves himself the bravest, smartest and most talented Warder anyone's seen, and quickly makes a name for himself. The book's chapters often take place years apart, and this, along with a few other issues, are what began to wear on my experience.
All three characters begin the book as children. Arlen 10, Leesha 13, and Rojer 4. But because they start at different times, the story ends with Arlen being the oldest, and Rojer some eleven years younger than Leesha, rather than nine. Impressively, each manages to have their own consistent story before they're all inevitably connected together, with various levels of chronological skipping. Rojer goes from four to fourteen almost immediately, and it goes pretty normally from then, until he jumps to sixteen, while Leesha has a few chapters at thirteen, a couple at twenty, and then a final handful at twenty seven. Arlen jumps too many times for me to recall, before SPOILER he discovers an ancient warded spear, and an ancient city with lots of mystical power runes, and makes the incredibly obvious realization that if you can literally paint wards on anything, you can paint, and thus tattoo, wards on yourself. He does this after some betrayal at the hands of the ultrareligious warlike Krasians (can Arabs -- I'm sorry "desert people" in the Warded Man, AND A thousand Names -- be anything BUT religious zealot barbarians who abuse their women and hate foreigners in fantasy novels? This is fantasy, you know.)
Individually, I liked each of the characters, though Arlen started to wear on my nerves the more "tortured hero" he got. And he gets a lot. By the end of the book he's dripping tortured hero so hard I can read the Pantone color #. Rojer begins, continues, and obviously ends up as the Jongleur sidekick -- read bard. Leesha becomes a strong confident woman, trained as a master Herb Gatherer -- read, chemist/doctor, but then... Godzilla.
Let me go off for a second here. This book is a book with a lot of sex. Talking about sex, talking about babies, about how people in small towns constantly cheat, about how everyone is always sleeping with everybody else, about how you pretty much can't trust any man to not force his way into your pants. Leesha is almost raped numerous times, until SPOIILER she actually is. Off-screen. Her and Rojer are attacked by bandits and her virgin flower is stolen. It happens so suddenly, so randomly, that I actually stopped reading, earmarked my page, and put the book down on the table. The scene seems to hold no purpose other than to accentuate the point that men are rapists, and to give the characters a reason to need to be rescued by Arlen, discover he's the now-mystical Warded Man and murders demons with his bare hands,
Let me put this out loud. The way the characters meet, and the "love chapter" I mean, love story develops is:
- Leesha gets raped.
- Leesha is rescued by Arlen.
- Arlen, assisted by Rojer, essentially murder the bandits who raped her by leaving them to demons.
- Leesha discovers this and is upset since she as an Herb Gatherer has sworn off killing anyone for anything.
- Arlen is guilttripped by her logic and basically tries to kill himself by going nutso Rambo in the rain, which is dangerous because mud obscures wards and thus makes him vulnerable.
- Rojer rescues Arlen, who comes back and acts a big sullen baby.
- Leesha decides that this is the man she is destined to love and has sex with him.
Time between "lost virginity to rape" and "have sex with man I just met": one day.
Authors. Please, please, please. If you are going to include a rape scene in your book, please talk to a rape victim. Yes, people are different. People respond in all sorts of different ways. But one of the things rape victims almost universally do not do is immediately go have sex with near strangers. We all know Arlen is a hero who would never hurt anyone. We all know that Leesha is a woman who can make her own decisions, even if that decision is to revert to her childhood ignorant dream of just having babies and being a mom, literally throwing aside all of the character growth she's had through the whole book. The point is, they are still strangers basically at this point, and if that's her response, it's because she's gone crazy, and if Arlen is a really good person who does good things, he would realize that she just got raped and she is probably emotionally unstable, and maybe not making the best decisions.
Maybe I'm overly sensitive to this based on personal history, but I don't think that changing this story to have a longer build time from got raped to fucking a crazy tattooed magic dude would necessarily be a bad thing. Additionally, if you're going to have a rape scene, give the goddamn woman some agency. Having her entire struggle occur off-screen so that all we see is the resulting disempowerment makes that character seem weak, even though we know she's not. Leesha fights off rapists multiple other times in the book, yet she is denied a voice when it comes to the struggle that she loses. Poetically just, perhaps, but wrong for the character. Leesha becomes about as flat of a character as a pancake after she meets Arlen, lusting for his babies and promising she'll find out what the horrible truth is behind why fighting demons and absorbing their magic with his magic tattoos is turning him into an ubermensch. What a horrible flaw. It's really something I would worry about when I'm trying to rid the world of every last demon.
Okay, I guess that's all the spoilers. The book ends with Arlen teaching people they can fight back, and a menacing chapter that leads directly to the sequel, with the Krasians on the march. Wheee. It's a classic hero's journey, through a fairly interesting world, but I felt like either too much of the iceberg was being hidden from me, or that the world is built on flimsy structures. For instance, if all you have to do to basically be invincible and able to kill demons with your hands is paint wards on your body, don't you think that's something like... no one would have forgotten? Or someone would have tried again? Because you can use pretty much any paint substance?
It makes me worry that I'm projecting too much self-awareness into books, but this seems like... incredibly simple. Then again, I am some sort of super-educated magic man, and the people in this book are pretty much all medieval hicks.
Okay, all this said though, I do find myself thinking about the characters and the world when I'm not reading the book. The world gets into your head, and the characters are very likeable, and the prose is good. Brett writes with confidence, and he has a clear view of his world. While perhaps the destinations of each character's journey were never in question, I enjoyed the paths they walked -- truncated though they were. This book has all the essential parts of a story, without the fluff. But that in itself is something of a negative. Some fluff is good. Living with our characters can be enjoyable. You're not always wasting your reader's time if you're allowing your characters to live a little. This book could have been quite a bit longer and I would have been happy. Depending on the price of the Desert Spear, I might pick it up, and see if the sequel is worth a read. But if it's more man-happy tortured hero worldsaving... I might be too tired for it. It's too cool.
ONE WORD REVIEW: B/W/D