If not for the sexism, I’d class Peter Brett’s THE WARDED MAN as flawed but fun. Fun enough that for a while I thought I’d have to make an effort to get the second book in the series. Instead, it’s a demonstration of how sexism can undercut a good story (though the Demon Cycle ended up encompassing five books, so obviously it didn’t ruin things for everyone)
I certainly like the core concept. Demons rule the night; go outside the wards around each city, town and village after dark and you die. Communities more than a day’s walk away are isolated, except for the Messengers who travel with portable wards. The best people can hope for is survival. Artel, the central of the three protagonists, can’t accept that. After he sees his father refuse to leave the wards to try to save Mom, Artel leaves home, determined to become a Messenger and to fight against the demons. He has a natural gift for warding and in the early sections of the book masters the art. Skip several years ahead and he’s a mighty warrior, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Krasnians, stereotypcailly Muslim-esque desert dwellers who war against the demons despite constant casualties. Skip a few more years and by tattooing wards on his skin Artel has become the Warded Man, an unstoppable demon slayer.
This period, unfortunately, is undercut by skipping and synopsizing so much of Artel’s journey. It’s like a D&D character working up to sixth level, then blam, he’s twelfth level. Them blam again, he’s twentieth! It lost my interest so maybe I wouldn’t have gone with book two anyway. But the sexism was a bigger problem for me.
Because the demons kill so many people, there’s a desperate need to keep the birthrate up. Women, with rare exceptions, stay home, keep house and pop out kids (the Krasnians, of course, are way more sexist). Most women are cool with this, but they’re not cool with men wanting to go off and fight demons or serve as Messengers instead of staying home where it’s safe. Women wanting to tie men down and stop them having fun/adventures is an old annoying stereotype, particularly when almost all the women are like that (Brett does better with this than Robert Silverberg, but that’s a low bar to jump over). We’re told that in one city women who’ve given birth play a role in the government, but we don’t see it.
Then there’s Leesha, the female protagonist (Rojer, a wandering minstrel, is the third). Starting out as protege to a herbalist/healer, she eventually sets off on a journey where she meets Rojer and later Artel. Rebelling against the pressure to marry, she looks like she could become a promising character … but somehow her arc is all about her sex life. The boyfriend who can’t accept she won’t marry him, then lies about having popped her cherry. The constant pressure from her mother. The constant fending off of advances or rape attempts. The struggle to stay virgin. Only tragically, when she has her adventure, she becomes a raped virgin. Like an earlier chapter which casually tosses off that one supporting character sleeping with his own daughter, the rape feels like an attempt at grimdark, but it feels annoyingly cliched, not gritty and realistic. Even less so when Brett has Leesha almost instantly shrug off her trauma so she can put moves on Artel.
There was a lot of stuff I liked in the book, but not enough to make up for all that.
#SFWApro. Cover by Larry Rostant, all rights to image remain with current holder.