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 of a hundred sees the book the same 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 story isn’t fresh in my mind anymore.
The book in question is The Painted Man (in the US: The Warded Man) by Peter V. Brett. It’s the first book in the Demon Cycles series.
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, which 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:
(Trigger warning: sexual violence.)
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 is 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.
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.