A promising debut from a new voice in fantasy.
Synopsis from Goodreads:
Lady Elanna Valtai is fiercely devoted to the King who raised her like a daughter. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is accused of his murder and must flee for her life.
Returning to the homeland of magical legends she has forsaken, Elanna is forced to reckon with her despised, estranged father, branded a traitor long ago. Feeling a strange, deep connection to the natural world, she also must face the truth about the forces she has always denied or disdained as superstition – powers that suddenly stir within her.
But an all-too-human threat is drawing near, determined to exact vengeance. Now Elanna has no choice but to lead a rebellion against the kingdom to which she once gave her allegiance. Trapped between divided loyalties, she must summon the courage to confront a destiny that could tear her apart.
Taken prisoner by King Antoine Eyrlai as an infant, Elanna has little memory of her homeland or birth parents. She has been raised to believe in the Ereni version of history and has little time for the Caerisians; her own people. But when her beloved King Antoine (who has been the closest thing to a father to her) is murdered, Elanna, with her Caerisian heritage, is accused of regicide. Knowing such a sentence (even though untrue) would mean her death, Elanna flees. What she discovers when reconnecting with her Caerisian roots makes her question all she thought she knew about the circumstance of her capture and the conflict between the Ereni and Caerisian people. She must also embrace her magic, a force she has always felt stirring within her but has had to suppress. For there are witch hunters with stones magicked to incapacitate people like Elanna, so they can be captured and executed. But Elanna’s gifts are unique and may be just what the Caerisian people need to rise up again and reclaim their freedom.
The Waking Land is a promising fantasy debut. The prose is beautiful; it sparkles, particularly when Bates’ describes Elanna’s blossoming powers. The descriptions of Elanna sensing the earth and being able to will it to do her bidding are so evocative and original. The last third of the book is especially well written and paced; as though Bates’ is really hitting her stride here.
Part of Elanna’s journey in the novel is discovering her true identity and it is wonderful to see her transform from a confused, frightened young woman to a woman embracing her power and magical destiny. She is a strong female protagonist and I can’t wait to follow her journey in the rest of the series. I particularly love fantasy with female characters who can match (or even overtake) the abilities of their male counterparts. As the novel progresses Elanna shifts from being dependent on others for her welfare, to being entirely autonomous and powerful in her own right. Her power, though, is a force for good – she doesn’t achieve change through bloodshed unlike much of the history of this magical world. There are exciting battle scenes, for sure, but I liked that Elanna’s magic was a benevolent one – a freeing over containing.
Elanna’s conflicting allegiance – to the Ereni or the Caerisian people – is interesting due to her upbringing. This conflict, as she must decide who to believe and who to fight for, made me consider the fact that she may have been suffering from a form of Stockholm syndrome before the novel begins; a brainwashing to the Ereni beliefs and versions of history. As readers, we join Elanna on her journey to discover the truth. However, in the early stages of the novel when she is in the process of challenging all she thought she knew, it is sometimes difficult to fully grasp her as a character and to know which version of history is correct. It keeps us off-kilter, as much as Elanna is, which may have been Bates’ intention. We must also challenge other characters’ allegiances. At times, this meant more work on the part of the reader to interpret what is going on – both in Elanna’s interpretation of events and what we are able to learn from conversations and historical information we are given. This is resolved, though, in the last third of the novel when I felt I had a firm grasp of the world and characters.
The Waking Land is a strong debut novel; the magical system is unique and intriguing, the main protagonist is one I want to follow into future books, there is a satisfying love story, and – most importantly – it is a powerful tale of a woman reclaiming her identity, autonomy, and magical destiny.
To read my interview with Callie, click here.