SPOILER WARNING: The rest of the post contains EXPLICIT spoilers about Kaki Warner's Pieces of Sky. You have been warned.
A few weeks ago, Dear Author had a discussion about whether there is an Irredeemable Trait, a line that, if a hero crosses it, makes him impossible to redeem in the eyes of the reader.
For 90% of the novel, Brady, the hero of Pieces of Sky, is a charming, no-nonsense rancher who is dedicated to protecting his home and his family.
However, near the middle of the book (p.189, to be precise), Brady crossed My Personal Line and performed an act that left me sickened and disgusted. Let me paint you a picture of Brady's past: his family (the Wilkins) and another family (the Alvarezes) endured a blood feud over ownership of the RosaRoja ranch. Several people died during the feud, most at the hands of Sancho Alvarez (who was Evil in pretty much every possible way it was to be evil), with the help of his half-brother Paco.
At one point, Paco and Sancho laid in wait for Brady but ambushed his kid brother Sam instead, but that didn't stop them from brutally torturing the boy and leaving him for dead. Paco and Sancho both ended up in prison for 10 years, but at the beginning of Pieces of Sky they escape with the intent to win RosaRoja for themselves.
Soon after, however, Paco is captured by the Wilkins. Brady brings him into the family barn and pumps him for information on Sancho, but not very effectively, since both Paco and Brady know that Paco's not going to leave the barn alive. Up to this point, I can accept the fact that Brady has to kill Paco. Within the context of 1860s New Mexico, where ranches and outposts were pretty isolated and most men made their own laws, I understood that, to Brady, it was necessary to kill Paco in order to protect his family. When reading historical novels, one has to realize that the morals of the period might be different from our own.
However, Brady doesn't kill Paco. Instead, he ends up forcing Paco to hang himself, threatening him with a much longer and more gruesome death if he doesn't perform it by his own hand - knowing that Paco, as a Catholic, considers suicide to be an unforgivable sin. The book makes it clear that Brady is making Paco hang himself precisely because Paco is Catholic, so that Paco will die in the terrified certainty that he's going to Hell.
Let's read this horrifying scene together, shall we?
Brady watched, detached, thinking it an odd thing to see a man die while he was still alive. It began in the eyes - a faint dimming, like a lantern slowly going out. Then the body seemed to shrink into itself, as if the spirit had already flown. And finally all that was left was a trembling shell with the resigned, numb look of a steer in the slaughter line. Seeing it happen to Paco Alvarez filled Brady with a cold and bitter satisfaction.This scene absolutely disgusted me. This wasn't a man killing another man out of necessity thanks to the circumstances of their historical period. This was a man who intentionally kills another man in the worst way possible for the express purpose of making him suffer.
This is, I think the Line-Crossing Evil for me. It's not necessarily murder, or theft, or manipulation - even rape, in very, very particular circumstances. All of these, if depicted within a certain context or historical period, can be forgivable or at the very least understandable. But to me, CRUELTY defies period or context.
I'll admit sometimes the line is blurred - in Gaelen Foley's The Duke, when our hero Robert confronts the heroine's rapist, he beats the everlovin' shit out of the guy before having him transported, and this didn't bother me. In fact it was entertaining and even a bit romantic for the hero to lose his aristocratic sophistication long enough to go apeshit on this guy.
But - he didn't kill the guy.
And - his action was the result of passion and over in moments. He didn't coldly stand by and watch for fifteen minutes as a weeping man hanged himself. Brady's actions were cold, calculating and intentional - he knew what he was doing, he knew what it would do to Paco, and he knew exactly what Paco was going through. And he stood by and watched.
I'll also admit that the scene with Brady and Paco may struck me personally because I am Catholic - not because I hate watching a professed Catholic character die, but because my upbringing made me more aware of the type of psychological torment Brady intentionally put Paco through. Technically, what Paco did wasn't a mortal sin (one of the main qualifications for a mortal sin is that it has to be performed of your own free will), but he didn't know that. And Brady knew he didn't know that.
Still, I kept reading the book. Why? Because there was a whole lot of book left - and part of Brady's inner struggle involved coming to terms with the sins he'd performed during the blood feud. I read books in a pretty Catholic way, actually - a hero can get away with all sorts of nasty things, provided he expresses remorse later and improves himself as a character as a result. If by book's end Brady had come to revile the things he'd done to Paco and acknowledge they were wrong and try to change, I might have been able to tolerate the hanging scene as a necessary demonstration of Brady's character arc from a man willing to inflict cruelty to a man who rejects cruelty.
The novel does indicate this - slightly. Brady pukes his guts out after Paco hangs himself, but on the next page he regrets not castrating the man. Paco's death sort of fades under the blanket of Brady's general guilt and isn't mentioned again - which I inferred meant that Brady considered it no more or less evil than the other things he'd done during the feud. What could be worse than psychologically, theologically, and mentally torturing a man to death? How could that be in any way equal to just shooting the man between the eyes?
Even then, I might have brought myself to accept that flimsy "redemption" - if Brady hadn't done it again. By p. 342, Brady rides up to a cave where Sancho has kidnapped Jessica, only to find Jessica safe. To defend herself, she'd smashed a lit lantern across Sancho's face and fled. Brady arrives inside the cave to find his worst enemy burned to a crisp - but still alive. He pulls his gun to end it, but can't pull the trigger. Instead, he decides Sancho should suffer and he sits down and thinks about his life. In the cave. Two feet away from a horrifically burned man suffering a living death. After some time has passed, he finally decides mercy is better than vengeance, but wouldn't ya know it? Sancho's already dead.
So Brady ended spending several long hours next to a horribly burned man without doing anything. Without even noticing the guy, so deep was he immersed in his brooding.
Sancho's death only disturbed me more - why? Because I began to think I could see the author's intentions behind Brady's actions. Now, I'll freely admit - I'm not a mind reader. I could be completely off base about this. But these are the impressions I personally got while reading this book.
Brady, despite describing himself as a roughened cowboy who does what needs to be done, never actually kills anyone on-screen. A flashback, where he tearfully admits to putting his dying brother Sam out of his misery, is the closest we get. The only two times where he could have killed a person (and, in the context of the narrative, have been wholly justified in doing so) one of them ends up hanging himself, and the other succumbs to tremendously painful injuries inflicted by someone else.
I've read lots of romances where villains conveniently die by accident or through their own evilness, to prevent the protagonists from having to kill them and thereby staining their consciences. This is what Paco's and Sancho's deaths seemed like to me - that Paco hanged himself so that Brady wouldn't have to kill him, and that Sancho conveniently died before Brady could offer him mercy - so that readers wouldn't be disgusted by a hero who murders.
As if Brady forcing a man to hang himself and watching a man die in pain for several hours is somehow morally superior to killing them outright. What horrified me about this aspect of the narrative was that it seemed to me like Kaki Warner was trying to get keep her hero out of the Moral Frying-Pan - only to drop him into the Moral Fucking Hellfire.
Other people may not feel this way about Brady, or feel as strongly as I do. Other people may be wondering why I gave the book a B. I guess I could attribute that to another author flaw - inconsistency. For the majority of the novel Brady is a well-drawn, sympathetic and attractive hero, except for two sadistic moments that happen quickly and then vanish without any repercussions on the character's development. By the time I finished the book, I remembered more about Brady's good aspects than the two Bad Incidents.
But it didn't make the Bad Incidents go away. This was why I kept it out of the review - I feared that my own reaction to the Bad Incidents was too personal, so I decided to make it a separate post and rate the book itself from a more objective standpoint that said - there was bad, but more good than bad.
What do you think? If you've read the book, how did you react to these two scenes? Am I totally off my rocker?