The Burning Land by Victoria Strauss
Avon/Eos HCVR: ISBN 0380978911 PubDate: 01/01/04
Review by Samuel Lubell
496 pgs. List price $24.95
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Author Victoria Strauss is trying to do something beyond the ordinary fantasy quest in her novel The Burning Land . While she does not quite pull it off, she should certainly get credit for writing seriously about religion, faith, and belief.
The book has perhaps an overly complex background. Its prologue tells the story of the creation of the world by the god Ârata, his fight with the dark god, and his long sleep to heal himself in the wasteland that became the Burning Land. As Ârata slept evil entered the world and so the god’s spirit gave the First Messenger the principles of Ârata’s religion, a crystal of the god’s blood, and a prophecy of the Next Messenger who also would bear Ârata’s blood. The actual story opens with the Âratists retaking control of their temple and the country from the secular Caryaxists. The book’s main character, Gyalo, is given the assignment to go into the Burning Land and find a group of Âratists who had been banished into the desert. Gyalo is a Shaper, who is required by the Church to use a special drug to control his magical power to create objects through force of will. The Âratists fear that some of the exiled Âratists may be out-of-control Shapers, who do not limit their use of their power to religious rituals as the Church-controlled Shapers have since the ancient Shaper wars. But storms, desert conditions, and mutiny leave Gyalo and a few others unable to survive unless Gyalo breaks his vow and the rules of the Church to use his Shaper powers for personal ends.
Meanwhile the descendents of the banished live in their Refuge from the demons they think have taken over everywhere else but the Burning Land. Only Axane, who has kept her power to dream true Dreams secret, has seen beyond the Dream-veil protecting the Refuge and realized that the world is populated not by demons but humans like herself. The people of the Refuge have their own legend that someday the Next Messenger will come to lead them out of exile. So when Gyalo arrives many are convinced that he is the Next Messenger while others fear he is a fake created by the demons to destroy Refuge. For his part, Gyalo is shocked by the various heresies the secluded group had developed until he sees the empty cave that the people of Refuge are certain was the resting place of Ârata – meaning that the god must now be awake.
Strauss does several interesting things here. First, she has created a situation in which neither group has all of the correct story. And the reader never finds out how much of these myths are true. Another innovative twist is the question of whether Gyalo really is the Next Messenger. He is convinced he is not but the prophecy keeps falling into place by sheer accident. Unfortunately, the author could have done more to show his internal questioning over this question. Also, although much is made of Gyalo’s breaking of his vow and his acceptance of the consequences, the author fails to show the internal struggle convincingly. Strauss tells what happens but never lets the reader feel Gyalo’s emotions and doubts.
There’s a lengthy and largely unnecessary subplot about prisoners being used for mining that appears to be there largely to show increasing corruption and conflict between Church and State. And only Axane and Gyalo (and one other character late in the novel) emerge as real three-dimensional creations. Too many characters exist solely to manipulate these two and even Axane adapts remarkably easily to what should be an alien outside world once Gyalo takes her out of the Refuge.
Still, this book’s strength is its willingness to break the usual patterns for fantasy novels. There is no quest to save the world and Gyalo never tries to become a religious revolutionary. Nor is there a typical romantic relationship as Gyalo is required to be celibate. Even the ending is not the typical happily ever after. In a genre full of “collect the plot coupon objects” and “farmboy becomes king/sorcerer” novels, it may be enough that The Burning Land tries to do something different with serious religious issues, even if, at least for this reader, the novel faltered in the execution of this goal.