Pros: Fascinating world-building; interesting relationships; inventive religious plots
Cons: Some predictable (and depressing) events and people
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Review ebook provided free by publisher via NetGalley.
The Burning Land is book one of the “Way of Arata” series by Victoria Strauss. Gyalo is a devout member of a religious order that serves the god Arata. For a while Arata’s worship was outlawed, so they’re still rebuilding. The order believes that during the dark times a number of their people escaped tyranny by fleeing into the sacred Burning Land. While it’s likely that the harsh conditions killed them, the order must make sure. Gyalo is assigned to this mission; he’s a Shaper, one who was given by Arata the power to shape reality and transform non-living substances. With him are two Dreamers, whose visions will lead the expedition to their goal, as well as a guide and a handful of soldiers.
The reputation of the Burning Land as a place that has no sustaining resources, and that kills everyone who enters it, was too easily thrust aside once the expedition entered the lands. It made sense that most people wouldn’t be aware of the hidden resources of the desert, but for a while it came across as “everyone who enters this land dies… except that much of it is actually really easy to survive.” I expected at least a little bit of difficulty as they entered the area. That said, the Burning Land does eventually show its harsher side.
I enjoyed the basic core of characters in the book, including Gyalo and Axane, a Dreamer he meets while on his expedition. Gyalo is unusually firm in his faith without falling prey to many of the potential tropes in that area. Axane helped to keep me glued to the pages because I cared about what happened to her. A couple of the soldiers who accompanied Gyalo also show a surprising side of themselves. That said, some of the side characters are highly predictable and lack dimension. There’s never any question about how the order will treat Gyalo (or his companions) after he returns with his revelations. Nothing in that section was surprising, which made that portion of the book rather depressing.
There’s some great material in here exploring religion in interesting ways. The rules and strictures, the taboos, the heresies and outlooks… the main characters explore these things in thoughtful and interesting detail. With respect to dream interpretations, prophecies, etc. the book doesn’t make anything easy. There are plenty of things which are open to interpretation in all sorts of ways, and watching different characters come to different conclusions fascinated me. All of this added up to some great world-building.
Despite the occasional down-side, I very much liked The Burning Lands. It is not a fast-paced or action-filled book, and I found that to be just fine. The details of civilization, religion, and so on pulled me in until the very end, and I’d be interested to read the follow-on.