When I am given a book with the words "But beware the perception of women in there", I'm imbued with a healthy scepticism up front. Hence, I was a little biased when I took up The War... Paint The Warnted Man, there we go! Problem solved. But I'll try not to focus too much on this aspect.
The Warnted Man is described in the blurp (OMG, how cute is that word!!) of the German edition as an "Epic of proportions of the Lord of the Rings" and I'm positively sure I'm not mean when I claim that it isn't. It might change over the course of the series, but I'm confident I can get a glimpse into the tone of a story on 800 pages. And there is little Lord of the Rings. It would be Lord of the Rings if Elves would have been assholes and the Companions had greeted Galadriel by waving their penises in front of her.
That doesn't mean it is bad. It's just no Lord of the Rings but Lord of the Rings -- sorry to break it to you -- isn't the only and not even the best Fantasy Epic there is. But my dislike of marketing comparisons aside: The mythology is interesting, the story more or less predictable and the image the author paints of humanity is bloodcurdling.
So let's first have a look into the mythology, because any good critique starts off with the good points. The world of The Warnted Man is haunted by the Corelings, demons rising from the ground at night. Humans can guard themselves of their savage attacks by drawing circles of wards - protective signs - on their houses and the ground. The art of fighting with the help of wards has been lost in a period of peace and scientific progress. The last hope is the promise of a redeemer figure said to lift the curse.
I can work with that.
The book is written quite pleasantly and the chapters and paragraphs have a good length and are varied enough for me to not start skipping pages. At least in the first half or so. The last third drags a little, but the finale is exciting enough to make up for it.
We accompany three young people on their journey: Arlen, a farmer's boy (hehe), who pledges himself to battling the demons after the horrific death of his mother; Leesha, who sadly bled to death after her first menstruation - uh, I mean who opts for a life as a healer and finally Rojer, a very unlucky gleeman who has los his parents to the demons.
To me, the plot was more or less obvious when the redeemer was said to wear "signs on his skin". Well. Considering the title, I don't think it was supposed to be a surprise. I don't have to point out, which one of our three heroes comes up with the brilliant idea of getting a ward tattoo, do I? The characters were alright and sufficiently motivated, only Rojer kept slipping my grasp. I never quite bonded with him. Maybe that's because we are told the most cruel events in his life from another point of view or because his nature as a jokester dims the clarity of his character, but I didn't really get him. Leesha, finding honour and respect as a healer, was sometimes a little out of character and -- as the single female protagonist - somewhat problematic. Arlen is your archetypical messiah figure who, from the very beginning, denies all profit in order to help all humanity. He's probably the only genuinely relatable person in all of Brett's world.
The typical nursing occupation of Leesha, which allows women to rise to heroines within the boundaries of social expectations, is described as hard work, which is of great importance for Leesha to not end as utterly irrelevant. I first liked the approach to her character as someone who denies the child-bearing obligations everyone in Brett's world pushes on women with her self-chosen chastity. Until she meets Arlen, of course, because she then has to become a romantic interest for him. Her sudden change of mind comes to her after she is sexually assaulted which I find unlikely -- although I'm no psychologist. It's just that I don't buy into the "I'm defiled, my body is filthy, my honour is gone, God, I SO want to be impregnated by the guy with the wacky tattoos" train of thought. Maybe she's just confused. I don't know.
Arlen is, as stated earlier, the very archetype of a hero, it's almost boring. But his adventures are exciting enough for him to not having to rely on profound character revelations.
What would have intrigued me, though, is a role-reversal: A man as nurse and a woman as redeemer. It would have been quite interesting to see a basically misogynist world react to a female messiah. It would even have played out rather nicely in conjunction with the immage of motherhood that the author raised on a pedestrial. Just think about it: A pregnant woman, all alone in the woods, tries to guard her unborn child by painting her body with wards. She succeeds and tattooes them onto her body in order to defend her child with claws and teeth and grows to become a true heroine to all people. I think that would have worked just fine.
Instead, otherwise strong Leesha mutates to a meek romantic interest in the grim presence of Arlen, excuse me, I mean The Warnted Man. She and Rojer end up completely submissive towards hin and I would have loved some kind of self-reliance on their part at the very end. They could just have said: "Either you take us with you and we fight together or we go without you. We will help people. Whether you like it or not." They didn't. They begged. Pity, really.
So let's get to the juicy bit: Gender roles and general perception of humanity. We've talked about the depiction of women before. There are nuances, but in general, women are week but hard-working creatures (in the villages), despicable lifestock with reproductive options (in Kraisa), or not really worth anything until they have given birth, but then they are at the top of the society (in Miln). As soon as they turn twelve or thirteen, they can't imagine anything more fulfilling than marrying and having lots and lots of children. Otherwise, they are lecherous nymphomaniacs. The author is wont to say "Leesha, there is no shame in wanting a man between your legs", but the rest of the book speaks another language: Sex is only approved of if it happens within a monogamous relationship and preferably with intent to repoduce.
But more shocking than the depiction of women is the depiction of men: Safe for Arlen, almost all other men are pushy, horny bastards who turn into violent jerks as soon as they see a somewhat pretty woman. Well, there are some greedy merchants, religious fanatics and traitors. There are one or two male characters with some merit to them, but over all, they look like instinct-driven sex-fiends.
Which is a rather sad picture for all humanity, don't you think? The strangely comforting thing about Lord of the Rings was the feeling of reluctant yet unwavering solidarity. Dark Fantasy always focuses on the lone wolfs, yet painting the rest of the world as horny and/or simpering good-for-nothings is a little ... harsh. I really wanted to give a chance to the the analogies between the culture of Kraisa and islam and hoped for a positive direction, but that silver lining was taken from me with something I like to call a dick move. Although it worked for the story, the wasted potential leaves me with a stale taste in my mouth.
So I leave The Warnted Man with mixed feelings. Well crafted and written, it puts too much attention on its sad depiction of human nature by focusing on social conflict rather than on the battles against the demons. (Right, there were demons! Totally forgot about those!) With that, it just misses my taste. But due to the interesting mythology and as I still have hope for improvement, I'll have a look at the second book of the series.