Strauss, Victoria: The Burning Land

Thoughtful fantasy that packs a punch without the hack and slay

Opening this book, we find notes on Arsacian pronunciation followed by a formal declaration of the Doctrine of Baushar as it pertains to the Way of Arata, followed by the obligatory fantasy map of a continent floating isolated in some ocean and sketchily divided into as yet unknown countries. Then we have a prologue outlining the central creation myth of this world, along with the local personifications of the eternal battle between Good and Evil, Darkness and Light. If you are one of those fantasy fans who revel in such things, you are certainly in for a treat. If, like me, such preambles all too often make your heart sink, I recommend you persevere and get stuck into the story proper. I found it well worth my while.

The eternal battle between good and evil underpins the tale but not in the sense of gods resolving events when the divine Arata wakes from his sleep of eons to deal with the evil brought into the world by the demonic Ardaxcasa. Nor are we dealing with Arata’s First Messenger Marduspida and his lifelong mission to the Way of Arata. No, we’re dealing with believably real people whose lives are governed by belief in these events supposedly occurring a millennium before. The Way has flourished and diversified and is inextricably intertwined with the politics of a mature and complex civilisation that is skilfully portrayed. With its deserts and Asiatic influences, this is interestingly different from generic temperate fantasylands.

In the midst of this we have Gyalo, a monk in the First Temple of Arata, an orphan dedicated to the religious life since childhood. He is an interesting protagonist who can be intelligent and astute at the same time as being ignorant of the world outside his cloister, enabling us to learn about this world and its cultures alongside him. Gyalo’s learning curve is a steep one when he is sent on a mission to find co-religionists lost in the not-so-long-past years when Caryaxists overran the Evening City at the heart of the Aratist realms. The Caryaxists with their humanist, secular philosophy took exception to things such as social inequality and priestly corruption but mostly they disliked the Shaping at the core of Aratism, a magic of creating and manipulating matter. After all, what is to stop these people just ruling the world and keeping ungifted mortals face down in the dirt? Such things have happened before in this world. I do like to see a fantasy writer taking on such central and potentially difficult questions of the genre. The Caryaxists have a point.

The Aratists acknowledge this unpalatable truth and their solution is to curb Shapers with drugs as well as circumscribing their powers with oaths and ritual. Gyalo, like every other Shaper is an addict. He is also a deeply convinced and convincing devotee of the Way. His faith is sorely tested when the expedition to find the Lost Aratists is struck by successive disasters, not least actually finding what they are seeking. However, someone’s disaster is someone’s opportunity; these events offer hope of salvation to Axane, a Dreamer in their city of Refuge. In this marginal community in a harsh environment, The Way has taken some very different turns, not least thanks to their unfettered Shapers and the necessity for everyone to subordinate personal desires and freedoms to the communal good. Here, a Dreamer faces a grim and very different life to that enjoyed by the Dreamers in the wider world who are cherished for the sake of their prophecies and insights.

So the stage is set for a clash between people with different yet sincerely held beliefs. On both sides there are those whose personal ambitions colour their actions in the name of their faith, as well as those who desperately try to resolve the contradictions between their own orthodoxy and the unexpected heresy that has appeared in their midst. For everyone, truth is what you perceive it to be and opportunist interpretations as well as honest doubts soon divide each side still further. This becomes more than academic debate when religious matters impinge on the pragmatism of secular authorities. Gyalo and Axane find themselves fighting for their lives, in the face of those who would condemn their Apostasy or proclaim the coming the Second Messenger of Arata.

As you’ll have gathered, this book contains a lot of detail and background. The writing is leisurely, often concentrating on individual’s inner lives and exploring their characters through incidental happenings rather than driving on with plot or dialogue. My own inclination is for faster moving styles but there’s an appropriateness to this more contemplative approach, given the way the plot turns on personality and belief.
Certainly, whenever I found myself half-thinking it was about time something more exciting happened, I generally turned the page to find some dramatic plot development, often entirely unexpected yet wholly integrated into the overall narrative structure. I also appreciated the depth and resonance of the exploration of the nature of belief in the unprovable and the challenges of co-existing with those see the world differently but with just as much conviction, as well as the dangers of unthinking dogmatism. There are powers in our own world who could do with thinking a little more deeply on such things, as events unfold in desert lands not so very far away.

If I’d put this book back on the shelf unread, I’d have missed out on a satisfying, thought-provoking read. I’m glad I didn’t and I’m keen to see what happens in the next volume.

This review originally appeared in The Alien Online.

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