There's an ever growing pile of books I want to read…
Small Review: The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett
I usually do my best to avoid spoilers when I’m writing my reviews. You might want to read the books that I’m reviewing yourself and I’m not interested in ruining that experience for you. In this case, however, I’m going to spoil. I have to. There’s no way that I can write this review without it so if you want to remain unspoiled, maybe you should stop reading now.
A few weeks ago, I requested and was sent a review copy of The Painted Man by @HarperInsider. I’m a big fan of fantasy books and they’re something I like to read for the sake of escapism. I like the world building of fantasy stories and I like that often they’re very black and white – the good guys are heroic and the bad guys are demons or evil sorcerers or some other unequivocal evil that you don’t have to feel bad about the quest to kill. (Although, actually, in some of the best fantasy novels, this isn’t the case. For example, in Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, you feel as much sympathy for the “bad” guy as for the “good” guys)
Anyway, I think they make for good escapism because the world written in them is so clearly not our world and because, well, doesn’t everyone secretly wish they were a magical assassin, or a brave knight, or someone with more power and skill than they have in their real life?
Unfortunately, sometimes when I read fantasy novels, I am tripped up by my gender and this was the case with The Painted Man. I loved the premise, I loved the world building, I thought the writing was excellent and the main characters were sympathetic. I just had a problem with the rape. And when I think back, the rape culture of the entire story.
I was reading and enjoying the story and thinking well of it and its author when I stumbled upon the scene at the beginning of a chapter when three bandits are boasting about having raped my favourite character, Leesha. It was jarring and upsetting and I had to put the book down and take a little break.
It didn’t matter to me that the author hadn’t explicitly described it. I am a woman and I live in this world where rape is a very real and valid thing to be afraid of and I can imagine it. I can imagine how she would have fought and how they would have overpowered her and how it would have hurt. Reading is an act of imagination and I don’t need the details described for my imagination to take over.
The thing about reading for escapism is that you put a little of yourself into each of the characters. You can’t help it. Or at least I can’t help it. Imagine that you are a man. Done that? Okay, now imagine that you are reading about a brave knight who has done many great deeds. You imagine that it’s you. You imagine that you’re a brave knight off on a quest in some magical kingdom. Now imagine that character being raped.
It’s upsetting, isn’t it?
I understand that in generic medieval-ish fantasyland, rape would be a major concern for women but I also feel that since it is a fantasyland, there’s a place for a female character who, either with skill or strength or smarts, can get the better of her attackers. I even feel that perhaps, since it is a fantasy after all, it’s possible to write a story where rape isn’t a concern. We could all take part in the fantasy that, in some worlds, all men are better than that.
The Painted Man includes a lot of gender politics and Leesha has had a lot of trouble with men. They lie about her, claim her as their own when she has rejected them or expect sex from her in return for safe passage but she manages to get the best of them each time. Because of her experiences with men, Leesha is still a virgin at the age of 27. Until, of course, she is raped by bandits.
I feel like the author made a big deal about Leesha still being a virgin so that it would have more impact in the story when she was raped. I also feel like he used her rape to drive the story arc of the male character that she was travelling with so that he would feel compelled to avenge her honour. All of that made me feel incredibly angry.
I think that the rape scene was unnecessary and that the story could easily have been just as good without it. Maybe then I would want to read the next part. At it is, I’m never going to read this book again and I’m never going to feel comfortable recommending it, the way that I thought I would be while I was reading the first 448 pages.