The Warded Man
This should have been a four star book. It’s arguably still a three-point-five star book but since we only use solid stars here it’s going to be a three. And the problem is that I can’t even tell you why I had to rate it down instead of rounding up without spoiling a part of the book. So if you’re reading this and don’t want to get spoiled, don’t read until the end. I’ve seen lots of people rate this book highly – which is great because it deserves it – but I don’t know why people are overlooking this particular thing.
So, that said.
I thought the Warded Man was a pretty great book over all. Brett creates a phenomenal fantasy world plagued nightly by demons who can only be kept at bay by intricate wards on their homes, stables, and cities. Being caught out at night means certain death as an infinite number of these nightmarish creatures stalk the countrysides. There are other rules to how the ‘corelings’ as they are called can and cannot move within the world. But the key factor is that humankind is helpless to stop them. They can only pray the wards hold fast each and every night and cower in their own beds.
This is the world that Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer have inherited.
The book splits it’s time between these three main characters. It covers a very wide range of time, picking up when each of the characters is a child and bringing them into adulthood. Arlen is a small town boy whose family is torn apart by his father’s own fear and cowardice – also corelings. He travels to the far cities, somehow surviving the road at night with his own wards drawn into the dirt. There he is taken in by a messenger who he met before and learns the ways of the world and wards, always imagining a world where people can fight back. Arlen is our true epic hero and his transformation is really the key to the whole story.
Leesha and Rojer, then, are there to add an added dimension to the world and their lives will eventually find these two irrevocably linked to Arlen, the Warded Man. Leesha is the daughter of small town papermaker and his insufferable wife. After a devastating betrayal she apprentices to a healer in town who gives her life real purpose. She’s a strong female character, the sort you may not always find in fantasy novels. Rojer, on the other hand, is a coreling orphan taken in by the jongleur who saved him. He trains in the same trade as his master and surrogate father despite a crippled hand and eventually learns that he, too, has some unexplainable ability to take the fight to the corelings.
As compelling of characters as Leesha and Rojer were in the book they were very much secondary characters. I think in future books their stories may be more compelling and impactful than they were this time around. As it was, in the Warded Man they offered a sort of break to Arlen’s story which for a while takes a very large break. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the intentional vagueness of how Arlen truly became the man he became or his history on the road as a man. It didn’t hurt the story at all but it did feel very cliche. Granted, Arlen is a largely cliche figure. A main character destined to be an epic hero who has an inherent skill at wards that even he cannot explain? It’s one of those too-good-to-be-true sort of backgrounds but hey. Cliches are cliches because they work and it doesn’t make Arlen any less of a great lead character.
I really liked Arlen. Moreso than Leesha – whose story was not nearly as interesting – or Rojer – who even accepted himself that he was likely no more than a sidekick in anything.
Mostly, though, I just liked the setting. It was a very interesting world. The mythology and rules behind how demonkind worked were well throughtout and at no point did I feel like I didn’t understand how things worked. I mean, clearly I don’t understand how magic works or the wards necessarily worked. But the world itself was so finely pieced together and Brett makes it so believable that none of that matters. You understand it because he understands it, because the characters understand it. There is a striking reality to it all.
I will say that I’m not sure how I feel about the religious element that seems to be going on. It makes sense that the people would attribute some sort of religious explanation to the rise of the corelings. Similarly it makes since that epic stories from eons past of a man who could fight back against the demons would turn that figure into a Christ-like persona. But ultimately I think we’re looking at a clash between the decidedly ‘Middle Eastern’ styled city and region and the native region of Arlen, Leesha, and Rojer. And that just seems tired to me. I’m not really looking forward to that progression.
But we’ll see how it plays out. I’m very interested to read the next book in the series – and the next one. And the next two or three. Right now Good Reads is telling me there are five books planned with estimated releases so there’s a lot of plot to be developed a lot more to happen with the characters. And probably plenty of additional characters to come, too, since everyone wants to be G.R.R. Martin these days.
So, before I tell you my problem with this book let me conclude with: Read it. It’s a great story. It’s a fantastic example of world building. And the characters are pretty likable. (I love Arlen but I go back and forth on how I feel about the choices he’s made.) This is a great series and I think fans of the Game of Thrones television series may particularly enjoy it because it’s not nearly as dense of a read as the GOT books. Less sex, though. Way less sex.
Which actually kind of brings me to my problem with this book.
Spoilers, yo. Be warned.
Leesha. Let’s talk about Leesha. Throughout the book she’s this really strong, independent female character. I mean, she starts out naive about things and learns very quickly that as a woman it’s about trusting yourself and taking power where you can. She does a fanastic job of it, too. The healer she apprentices with teaches her all about the female body, sex, and such. Which she later uses to keep a messenger from forcing himself upon her while traveling the road. Yay, no rape! Rape never serves a real purpose except to force a female character into a vulnerable position. So Leesha goes on being a HBIC, right? So great.
Except then, later in the book, she gets raped on the road while traveling home. No purpose to it at all. It’s just thrown in as something that happened and she’s sort of catatonic for a while. And then, suddenly, this woman who has been a virgin for going on like thirty years or something just throws herself at ‘the Warded Man’ when he comes by and rescues them? First we have a rape that served no narrative purpose other than, “Lol, you’re a vulnerable woman now!” and then she turns into something she’s not and never has been.
That bothered me.
It really bothered me.
It negatively impacted the way I looked at the book entirely. And I’m not really saying this because I’m a woman and that’s why it upsets me. It’s just cheap storytelling. I mean, if there were any narrative purpose at all then I probably wouldn’t be this hard on the author. It’s because you don’t take a strong woman and make that her only way to be vulnerable and insecure. There are plenty of ways to make three dimensional characters. The author failed in that regard and it really makes me question reading the second book only because I already feel like he’s not going to handle the whole thing any better as we go along.
But I guess we’ll see when I get to the Desert Spear.