The Burning Land
by Victoria Strauss
Published by Eos/HarperCollins
496 pages, 2004
Birth of A World
Reviewed by Sienna Powers
The cleric Gyalo Amdo Samchen is assigned by his order to be the spiritual leader of an expedition into the Burning Land, a region sacred to his religion and prohibited by church and law to travelers. Even if people wanted to go into the Burning Land -- which they don't -- they would find the geography prohibitive. It's not, after all, called the Burning Land for nothing. Church lore has perpetuated what would-be venturers can see from the periphery: the Burning Land referenced in the title is hot, desolate and entirely devoid of life, water or materials edible to humans.
When he is assigned his mission, Gyalo is told that Dreamers have sensed a "disturbance" deep in the Burning Land. As their title suggests, the Dreamers in The Burning Land are able to visit places in their sleep that they wouldn't be able to reach in a waking state. Gyalo is a Shaper: he has the hereditary ability -- trained by the church -- of reshaping matter. Unbound, Gyalo could turn a smooth field into a gaping crevasse, he could reform stone to bind his enemies. However, like all of the Shapers in the Empire of Arsace, Gyalo is bound: the drug manita keeps his shaping small and controlled. He may only use his Shaping skills within the ceremonies of his church.
Does it all seem a little overwhelming? It should. Victoria Strauss has created an entire world in The Burning Land. Throughout the book, one gets the feeling that we've entered here in mid-series: that, for there to be this much depth and history, six books must have come before this one. This isn't the case: The Burning Land is, thus far, the only book Strauss has set in this world, though the complicated political, religious and social customs of Strauss' world are so elaborate and well thought out, one can't help but think -- and after a while, hope -- that The Burning Land is only the first of many.
Ultimately, we follow Gyalo into the Burning Land, are on the edge of our seats when his expedition meets near disaster, and share his wonderment when he discovers Refuge, a city built of stone by a band of exiles, whose descendants -- now 300 strong -- have come to have an entirely different understanding of the Church of Arata than that followed by Gyalo's people. Both branches, however, have something in common: their scrolls foretell the coming of the Next Messenger and many of the people of Refuge feels that Gyalo meets the criteria. Is he or isn't he? After a while, even Gyalo isn't sure and Refuge's own indecision tears the previously peaceful community in half.
In Refuge we meet Axane, herself a secret Dreamer, who has seen the outside world Gyalo brings word of with her own eyes: in her dreams. She alone of her people believes Gyalo is neither god nor demon: but a man with experience of a place she longs to visit. Axane journey in the Burning Land takes her from Refuge, to the outside world, then back, then back again: three crossings of the uncrossable Lands, dragging tragedy in her trail.
If The Burning Land seems a bit much to handle in the beginning, hang on. It's worth the slog at the outset to get to all the good stuff Strauss has in store for us and it isn't long before we're immersed in this author's vision. Strauss' explanations of the physical experience of Shaping, for instance, are breathtaking: they almost make you believe. The politicking that goes on in The Burning Land is quite perfect: it's maddening and convoluted and, thus, completely real. Even the good guys, it seems, can sometimes barely tell themselves from the bad guys and almost everyone's motives are suspect. The forbidden romance that arises between Axane and Gyalo is a pleasing diversion from politics but, thankfully, doesn't overtake the entire story.
The Burning Land is complete in itself but, again, one can't help hoping that Strauss will see fit to add more to this tale. The personalities she's built here are so compelling and the world she's created so detailed, I look forward to spending more time in Strauss' latest world. | January 2004
Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.