Monday, February 15, 2010

Cruelty in Characters - Can it be Overcome?

Now, I just finished reviewing Kaki Warner's Pieces of Sky. While in general I liked it, it wasn't the bee's knees. In particular, something the hero did was extremely off-putting. It involved two small incidents within the admittedly epic scope of a Western novel, so it didn't affect my grading of the novel as a whole, but it troubled me and continues to trouble me now even as I think about it.

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?


  1. Naomi1:00 PM

    I haven't read the book, but I don't think your reaction is out of proportion because of your Catholicism at ALL. I'm an atheist and I winced at your description of Brady's actions. It makes him seem as amoral or at least sadistic as the villains, which is a pretty terrible authorial choice, IMO.

    I'm impressed you finished the book - it would have been a DNF for me, I think. (Though I always feel pretty guilty when I give up on novels, however terrible they are!) I still haven't completed "To Have and to Hold" because I find the Sebastian's redemption so problematic. When all you want is the heroine to run away as fast and as far as possible from the hero (RUN, RACHEL, RUN!), it fails as a romance for me.

  2. Naomi --> Thank you! I was beginning to think I was the only one who thought something like that could be creepy. So many reviews are so positive, and even the ones that are so-so don't really mention the evil that Brady does.

    That being said - I never got the impression the heroine was in danger from Brady. Maybe that's why no one commented, because Brady did evil things to "evil" people - that doesn't really justify it in my opinion, but it may explain the silence from that corner.

  3. I haven't read the book either, but I won't be planning to do so.

    I think your descriptions of what he did are awful. And yes, I think I find them more morally repugnant than killing them outright would have been. That would have been doing what needs to be done. This is a kind of torture.

    This sounds sadistic and cruel. How can you trust the feeling of a man who in these situations appears to have none?

    This wasn't a book I was planning to read, but now I know I won't be reading it.

    And I grew up Catholic too (and I'm still partially practising, certainly enough to send my son to a Catholic school), but I don't think that accounts for my feelings, just makes me understand and feel sorry for the villain, which I'm assuming wasn't the author's intention.

  4. Torture is the One Thing that I can't handle in books (ok, that and people getting stabbed in the eye). I am in full concurrance.

    In happier news, my word-verification is 'puggle.'

  5. It sounds like it would disturb me. I would have rather the hero killed the burned guy right there instead of choosing to let him suffer, but then on the other hand, he's the guy who tortured his brother, so maybe the author gives the two people who tortured Sam the worst deaths? I suppose I can see that logic, but I still wouldn't like these scenes. The assisted suicide thing seems even worse than the burning, but I was raised Catholic too.

  6. Anonymous12:55 PM

    I haven't read the book, and am not likely to, as westerns just aren't my thing. But I could hardly stand to read the excerpt, it was so -- sociopathic. The fact that he had no pity in him for another human being. Well. Not my kind of hero.

    I generally agree with your perspective on moral issues, AnimeJune, so don't feel alone! I would just encourage you to actually disclose your feelings when you review the books, to warn people about this kind of thing.

  7. Vorkosigrrl12:55 PM

    oops -- left off my name when publishing!

    I haven't read the book, and am not likely to, as westerns just aren't my thing. But I could hardly stand to read the excerpt, it was so -- sociopathic. The fact that he had no pity in him for another human being. Well. Not my kind of hero.

    I generally agree with your perspective on moral issues, AnimeJune, so don't feel alone! I would just encourage you to actually disclose your feelings when you review the books, to warn people about this kind of thing.

  8. I think it would bother me too. I prefer my heroes to "rise above the evilness of the villain". I don't mind so much if a villain needs killing - if it's in context - a righteous police shooting for example or as you mentioned the historical setting etc. but torture? No, I don't think so.

    The second example with the burnt man would probably bother me a lot more now - I scalded myself with boiling hot tea a couple of weeks ago and I'm still recovering. It was in no way as serious as the burns this character suffered or as serious as often happens in real life, but it was the most painful experience of my life. The burn was about a third of my left thigh and I needed surgical debridement and spent a few days in hospital and then there's the dressing changes and all the other associated drama. I am especially sensitive to any kind of reference to burns now - I have (some) personal experience of just how painful it is and I can't write it off like maybe I was once able to.

    So, if I read this book (and I'm not sure about it, plus my TBR pile is HUGE) I think I'll have to wait a good long time so I'm (hopefully) not so heat sensitive as I am now!

  9. I haven't read the book either, but, yeah, the first incident you describe is repugnant and probably (for me) irredeemable as hero behavior.

    The second incident, I could possibly understand more if the hero felt that the "bad guy" needed to be dead for the safety of those he loves but couldn't physically bring himself to be the direct instrument of death (perhaps he is traumatized by killing his own brother to "put him out of his misery" and can't do so again?). Of course, if this is the case, the author should've made this apparent...