Review: The Burning Land

When you pick up a work of fantasy, you expect many things. You expect to find some magic, some adventure, an interesting new world. And Victoria Strauss's The Burning Land certainly delivers all of that. But it goes well beyond. I have rarely read a novel that examines the nature of faith more deeply and more intimately than The Burning Land. Strauss has created a fully realized and realistic religious system that borrows elements from several of the world's religions, complete with hierarchies, dogmas, histories, and heresies. (My sociology of religion professor would have been so proud of her.) And she puts in the center of all of this Gyalo, a man of very deep faith who is sent on an unprecedented mission and will find himself tested in ways he could never imagine. Don't imagine that this is some dry philosophical thesis. It's all about what happens when the rubber meets the road, when the deepest beliefs are shaken and challenged and transformed in the heat of action.

It was a momentous time in Arsace. The iconoclastic Caryaxists (who bear more than a superficial resemblance to Communists) had finally been removed from power and the Church of Arata was rebuilding after the devastation. And then Dreamers revealed that there was a settlement of Shapers deep within the Burning Land, an immense and formidable desert to the south. Gyalo is sent to find them and bring them back. And throughout his journey and its aftermath, first his faith in the political leaders is shaken, then his faith in himself, his faith in his religious leaders, and his faith in his religious beliefs. He is not the only one being shaken either, and the clash of different cultures and different beliefs takes turns our own history will make all too familiar.

Strauss has pulled off a real tour de force here, combining an enthralling external journey with a profound inner one, and imbuing both of them with a deep understanding of the issues. It is all the more interesting because various characters come to entirely different conclusions as their faith is challenged, making it somewhat less clear which way she tilts herself. I suspect I know, and would not share her conclusions, but this in no way detracts from a very fine book. I highly recommend this one, because it has what I look for in the finest of fiction, sparkling prose, a fully realized world, a gripping story, and a deep look at the human soul. Lovers of literary fiction, fantasy, and psychological drama should all find it compelling.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this book from NetGalley for review purposes.

Author's website

Review: Hild

I wanted to love this book, I really did. I had a good personal recommendation, the blurbs were very impressive, and once I dipped into it, the writing was like music. But somewhere around the halfway mark, I had to start pushing myself to pick it up again, and the ending left me rather unsatisfied. I almost feel guilty about saying this, so many people are raving about it. But first things first.

Hild is a historical novel. It takes place in seventh century Britain, and covers the early life of the woman who would become St. Hilda of Whitby. Historians know nothing of this stage of Hilda's life, leaving the field wide open for the author. She tells us the story of the niece of a powerful and rising king, one whose mother created a legend for her before she was born, and who has the gifts to grow into that legend. She is the king's seer, feared and honoured for her ability to see the future. In reality, she is an extraordinarily observant and intelligent child whose gift is more one of being able to connect the dots that no one else even notices. Britain is in the process of converting to Christianity, alliances are shifting, it is a complex and turbulent time. And a fascinating time, well-portrayed in the book.

So why did I not love it in the end? The prose is absolutely lovely, the characterization is rich and believable, the setting is lovingly rendered, so that you can almost smell the fields in spring. Nicola Griffith has done her research and brings the era to breathing, pulsing life. There are so many things that are right. Well, part of the problem was the historical accuracy, an overdose of historical accuracy. It was a complicated time. There were many petty kings with a complex and shifting web of alliances. Keeping track of all of them as Hild helped to steer her uncle through this maze made my head spin. I couldn't keep the names straight, much less why they mattered and what they were up to. Add to this the large number of secondary characters, and the family tree at the beginning was not adequate for this confused reader. We needed a two- or three-page cast of characters. If you are already knowledgeable about seventh-century Britain, you will have a very different reaction.

Secondly, and more important, was Hild herself and as a result how the story was constructed. For all her major role in shaping the events of her time, Hild was more reactive than proactive. Her only real goal was to ensure the survival of her family and loved ones in a perilous world. I was well past the halfway mark and I realized I had no idea what the book was aiming at, or what Hild herself was aiming at. She reacted to events and did so deftly, but her management style would have to be characterized as skilful muddling through. At the end, I was not sure if I could say she had succeeded because the terms for her success had never been defined. The story felt oddly directionless and ended more or less arbitrarily.

However, most of the incidents themselves were interesting, and the texture of the writing is lovely. If you like a long, meandering hike through the countryside, much like Hild herself, you could be one of the many people singing this book's praises. It is very good, but in my mind it is not great. Not quite Gourmet Reading status.

Nicola Griffith's website

Review: The Sentinels of Andersonville

Some stories are drawn in black and white because the black is so deep and so dark that we could not bear to read them without the light to keep us from drowning. Yes, I know I'm mixing metaphors, but I just finished reading The Sentinels of Andersonville and I'm feeling a bit scrambled. The Civil War prison camp at Andersonville was a piece of hell on earth, and reading about it at all would be unbearable without the counterpoint of the genuinely good people who tried to do something about it.

Tracy Groot's historical novel was inspired by an incident during the Civil War, when some concerned people from Americus, Georgia, having learned of the plight of the starving prisoners of war in nearby Fort Sumter, took up a collection of food and tried to deliver it to feed their starving enemies. They were turned away, their food undelivered. Groot imagines a story inspired by them and the other individuals who did what they could to stand against the evil among them.

The descriptions in the novel of the conditions in the camp – and I suspect that Groot spared us some of the worst – are quite simply hellacious. We can count ourselves lucky that words do not convey actual smells. But the novel focuses on the people of integrity who tried in their various ways to do something about it and while they weren't able to eradicate the evil they were at least able to alleviate it a bit. And because we spend the bulk of our time with them rather than down in the camp (although we do spend some time there), it becomes bearable reading. Not just bearable, inspiring. The deep friendships and romances that form between the people battling vicious hatred, the ones who can see the human face of their enemies and who bear the reproach of being branded traitors for doing so, balance out the horror of those who knew exactly what was going on and didn't care, or worse, actively supported it. In real life, the commander of the camp, Captain Henry Wirz, was put to death for war crimes in 1865.

I enjoyed The Sentinels of Andersonville very much. Groot is a skilled, award-winning author who wins praise from almost every quarter, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, and is one of authors whose books I buy as soon as I see the name on the cover. I expected good things, and I got them. I smiled, I laughed, I fought back tears. And perhaps more important, it made me wonder what I should not be looking away from and what I can do about it. Yes, I'm afraid this book will do that to you.

My review of Tracy Groot's Madman

Tracy Groot's website

Review: The Name of the Wind

Patrick Rothfuss broke onto the fantasy scene with a big splash several years ago with blurbs from some of the biggest names adorning the back cover of his debut novel The Name of the Wind. His latest, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a sort of aside in the series, featuring one of the secondary characters as the protagonist, was released just a few weeks ago. In its honor, I am casting my eye back to the beginning of the series.

The Name of the Wind is a brick: my book club version weighs in at 662 pages. A seemingly innocuous innkeeper turns out to be much more and he begins telling his life story to a scribe who has seen through his alibi. "Begins" is an important word here. This is the first of a series, and we have a long way yet to go through the remarkable life of Kvothe. "Real-life" events do intrude on his narrative occasionally, so there are passages in the third person, but most of the book is in the first person.

Let me start by saying that Rothfuss can write. Sometimes poetic, sometimes just nice, clear narrative, his prose contains not a single awkward sentence. (OK, so there's one...) He obviously knows his craft and I'm willing to bet is a musician. Apart from the importance of music in the story, the kind of flow that he establishes with his language usually comes from someone with a fine ear and a keen sense of rhythm.

Rothfuss makes you feel like you know Kvothe, and while he may be the hero of the story and exceptionally intelligent, he is quite capable of showing an appalling lack of wisdom, at least in his teen years, which are the main focus of this book. Even exceptionally bright people are not necessarily gifted with wisdom, which usually has to be earned the hard way, and Kvothe has an abnormally difficult time with it.

World building is always an important element in a fantasy book. Finding out what is different, what is similar to the real world is always part of the fun. Rothfuss has blended science and magic seamlessly in this story, which I found very entertaining. He also doesn't burden the text with excessive description, but usually provides enough detail so you feel rooted in his world.

Having said all that, the book is too long. Seriously. I have absolutely nothing against long books, but this one lost momentum in the middle. Something is always happening, but there just wasn't enough forward movement. I'm the kind of person who gets lost in a book and have read all through the night more than once. This one became all too easy to put down. If you like reading a book in small pieces and really savoring the texture, this might not be a disadvantage for you, but I really wanted the pace to pick up more than once. It does, eventually, but you've got to be patient. Or find the gazillion ways a child prodigy can get himself into trouble entertaining in its own right.

The book gets a little dark occasionally. Kvothe spends several years living on the streets in a port city, for example, and it's not pretty. He learns to lie and steal with proficiency and some pretty nasty things go on. I didn't find it excessive even though I'm not a fan of grit for its own sake. The nasty bits are pretty much necessary and not described in overwrought detail, but if you're a very tender soul, you might want to look elsewhere.

A minor irritant for me was the fact that Kvothe has flame-red hair and green eyes that change color with his mood. Why Rothfuss would want to lift an overworked trope from pulp romance is beyond me. Granted, he handled it pretty well, but still...

This one doesn't quite qualify as Gourmet Reading, primarily because of the bloat around the midsection. But Rothfuss is still a fine writer, and those who enjoy a slow meander in an exotic world will find little to complain about.

Patrick Rothfuss's website