Sexual violence. And a book I don’t like.

A couple of years or so ago I read a book that made me both uncomfortable and angry. I read it because so many people loved the book, the series, the author. One of the reasons I haven’t yet completely let go of my anger is that people online still pour out their love. Maybe one reader out a hundred feels the way I feel, and sees the book the way I see it.

This anger and discomfort is the reason I’m not going to do a proper review of the book. Besides, too much time has passed and the book isn’t fresh in my mind anymore.

The book in question is The Painted Man (The Warded Man in the US) by Peter V. Brett. It’s the first book in the Demon Cycles series. 

(Spoilers follow.)

(Trigger warning: sexual violence.)

My discomfort started with how he portrayed one of the POV characters, the girl Leesha. She is one out of three protagonists. The other two are boys. 

The boys are pretty well fleshed out characters, even though none of the POV characters act rationally (I’ll come back to that later). But Leesha is strangely flat and almost incoherent.

A third of the time she acts like a stuck-up school girl who is also the teacher’s pet, a third of the time she acts like a mother figure with an ocean of patience, and the remaining third of the time she rebels against everything and everyone.

Now, I wouldn’t actually object to this type of sudden changes in a teenager’s personality, if only we saw proper reasons for them. But we don’t.

Her rebelling isn’t built up with enough frustration and pent up anger. The incident that supposedly causes her to turn against every single person in her whole village comes across as stupid and blown out of proportion: a boy she’s had a crush on gets into her bed. They don’t have sex but he says they did. The villagers’ reaction to this lie, that they take for truth, is strange and stupid and more appropriate for a small community’s treatment of an outsider, than the judgement such a community would pass on one of their own. Blood, water, thickness, you know.

All three POV characters share these unmotivated behaviours. The older boy, Arlen, runs away from his father and his village and into demon-infested, unfamiliar woods just because his mother died.

Okay, sure, there was a little more to it, but not enough. Any real eleven-year-old boy with any kind of self-preservation instinct would turn back and go home once the demons started showing up.

Even if his father did not rescue his dying mother from demons.

But the author needed the characters to go this way and do these things, so they did, like puppets on strings. Fantasy isn’t known for being a character-driven genre, but this is plain awful. 

Still, this wasn’t what provoked the anger in me. Bad characterisation is bad, but I usually shrug and move on to something (hopefully) better.

What made me angry about this book was … well, this:

At the age of 26, Leesha is still a stuck-up teacher’s pet, and still a patient mother figure healing everyone because she’s such a good person. She is a virgin, too, because she’s still traumatised after that boy’s lie when she was 13. Either that, or she has ‘saved herself’ for the ‘perfect husband’. It doesn’t matter. To each, their own, and I’m not gonna judge her decisions; only the author’s awful character building.

Anyway. When travelling back to her old home village after 13 years away, she gets robbed and raped by three outlaws.

And the very next day she has consensual sex with a scary, intimidating stranger who hardly speaks with anyone, is rude whenever he does speak, is covered from head to toe in mysterious tattoos, and strangles demons with bare hands!

Now, the reader knows who the tattooed stranger is. He’s Arlen, the same boy who ran away from his father and didn’t return even though demons tried to eat him.

The reader might even like this stupid boy with no sense of self-preservation, who has now grown up to be a bad-tempered demon-strangler. Which, I assume, is the reason the author can get away with this absolutely awful scene.

But Leesha doesn’t know who Arlen is.

And more importantly, Leesha has just been raped and left to die in the woods.

Leesha must be suffering from some serious trauma after this violent first exposure to anything involving men’s private parts and their invasion of her body. Leesha should react like any rape victim and fear men, physical touch, and people in general, to the point where she starts crying every time someone or something spooks her. Which should be often.

What Leesha should definitely not do, as a violated person suffering fresh sexual trauma and probably injuries ‘down there’, is willingly have sex with a complete stranger in the same cold, wet woods where she got raped.

Most women understand this. Even those of us who are lucky enough never to have gone through this trauma usually understand it on some level.

It baffles me that there are men out there, like this Peter bloke, who don’t. That there are people out there, men and women, who love Peter’s book and have no issues with this scene.

It scares me.

Because if rape is treated like a mere slap on the butt or, at the worst, a fist to the face, people aren’t going to understand what an immense violation it actually is, how it taints your sense of self, your self-respect, your confidence, the connection between your mind and your body. Even your integrity and self-control.

People aren’t going to understand why consent is so very, very important.

Seriously.

No, I mean it. Seriously. If you don’t want to have to touch upon all that shit — the shame, the fear, the self-loathing, the broken shards of a human soul which hide inside that violated body — then you really shouldn’t write about rape.

It’s as simple as that.

Review: Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares

Even though this isn’t technically a blog, I have now decided to occasionally write and post book reviews here. As it happens, I’m going to start not with one, but two books in a duology I absolutely love: Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares, by Laini Taylor.

These books are the first I read from Taylor, and strangely enough (pun intended), they aren’t the books I meant to read. I was recommended Daughter of Smoke and Bone because of a character’s hair colour (I colour my hair blue). But I didn’t get around to ordering them and then, one day, in a book shop, with a gift card in my wallet, I found a different book by Laini Taylor, namely Strange the Dreamer.

The cover was absolutely lovely: light blue with little winged insects in white, title in gold, tasteful and stylish. So I bought it. And without reading the back blurb, as is my habit when it comes to books or authors I’ve been recommended.

Little did I know it was the first book of two. Finishing the first book and realising I was now missing book two, I despaired for three whole days, before giving in to the craving. And so it happened that I eventually got around to sending that order: Muse of Nightmares and, finally, the trilogy I originally meant to read. (I haven’t yet, though. I don’t want to spoil myself too much. Then I’ll have nothing left to look forward to.)

When I read a series, the individual books often melt into one long tale in my mind, so that’s why I won’t review the books separately.

In Strange the Dreamer, we start off with a prologue of epic proportions, hook- and story-wise. It’s two pages long but it caught my interest like no first pages ever have. I spent the rest of the book trying to figure out what the prologue meant.

Next we get to meet Lazlo Strange, a dreamer boy, an orphan. Lazlo is who Kvothe might have been, had he been humble.

Lazlo gets to go on an adventure, where he encounters age-old secrets, mysteries, tragedies — and Sarai, a blue-skinned girl who can shape dreams.

The book is written from omniscient point of view, but because of the physical distance between the characters, we switch back and forth between Lazlo’s group of friends and Sarai’s. There’s some head-hopping occasionally, but then again, to me, most stories written in omniscient POV feel like that.

I absolutely loved both the main characters. Perhaps Lazlo is ‘unmanly’ from some men’s perspective. Perhaps women write men softer and more emotional than they are. But I still love him as a character — perhaps because I am a woman.

Sarai, however, I know is well-written. Women know how to write women. Or, at least, Taylor does. The other female characters, too, are complex and three-dimensional, even though we only occasionally get to glimpse the inside of their heads.

In Muse of Nightmares, the tale continues with the same secret/tragedy/mystery to be solved, but we also get to meet Kora and Nova, two girls in a fishing village where ice and limb-claiming cold form their daily lives. Their story gets interwoven with Sarai’s and Lazlo’s lives in a way they — and I — had not foreseen.

The second book starts off slower than the first, with almost half consisting of little more than dialogue, but when it gets going, it sure gets going!

The only thing I could wish had been done differently would be for the Kora-Nova storyline to be wrapped up better. As it is, it feels rushed, like Taylor was afraid to give the characters more time to speak.

I had not expected two young-adult novels to rise to the starry sky of My Most Beloved Books, but they did. And unless the Daughter of Smoke and Bone greatly disappoints me, Laini Taylor will rise to my list of Most Beloved Authors.

I salute you, pink-haired sister.