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 http://www.victoriastrauss.com/