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

Interview: Victoria Strauss

Today I am pleased to present Victoria Strauss,  author of nine novels for adults and young adults. She is also well known for her work with Writer Beware, protecting writers from the many scam artists that prey on those who are eager to be published. I recently reviewed Color Song, her latest novel for young adults. We discuss the common elements of fantasy and historical fiction, and the historical anomaly of convent art studios.

You've written a number of books – contemporary, historical, YA, adult – but the common thread in all of your books is fantasy. Why fantasy? What pulled you in that direction?

I've always been drawn to fantasy, fairy tales, the bizarre and the surreal, ever since I can remember. As a child, I was crazy about Arthurian mythology, and and I read all the way through the Andrew Lang books, as well as an endless number of fairy tale compilations from other countries--one of the things that fascinated me was how the story tropes repeat themselves from culture to culture. Another favorite was E. Nesbit--I loved the way the fantasy elements intruded into the everyday, the way the children in the books have a secret magical world that only they can share. In my teens I graduated to fantasy and science fiction--Harlan Ellison, Anne McCaffrey, Andre Norton. These days I've kind of lost my taste for full-on epic fantasy, but my favorite books are still those that mix the real with the fantastical or the surreal.

In my writing it's the same. When I first started writing, I never felt the slightest impulse to do the conventional thing and write about my own experiences; instead I dreamed up a historical epic with fantastical elements. I guess what it comes down to is that ordinary life is what I live. When I read or write, I want to go somewhere else.

Does historical fiction fulfill the same function for you: taking you somewhere else? Color Song has only the barest whiffs of the fantastical, and even that is mostly in the backstory.

Yes. For me, fantasy and historical fiction have a lot in common, both from a reader's and a writer's perspective. Both create/re-create worlds that never existed/no longer exist, and can be experienced only through imagination. My fantasy worlds begin in invention, but they're also heavily researched and incorporate real-world templates and details. Conversely, my historical fiction begins in research--but I use liberal doses of invention to bridge the information gaps and dark areas that research just can't fill. I'm equally comfortable in both genres.

I originally intended Color Song to be more fantastical than it turned out to be, with Giulia hearing the voice of the spirit Anasurymboriel in dreams, just as she did in Passion Blue. But it quickly became clear to me that the story didn't need that kind of obvious supernatural element--and it was also too repetitive of Passion Blue. In the end, I decided just to go with Giulia's ability to hear colors--which could be the spirit's gift (whether or not Anasurymboriel really exists is ambiguous anyway), or could just be her own unique ability, unlocked by her discovery of her passion to paint.

Is your workshop of painter nuns based on historic fact?

Yes. It's based on the workshop of Suor Plautilla Nelli,who was the mistress of a painting workshop at the Dominican convent of Santa Catarina di Siena in Florence in the middle of the sixteenth century.

Plautilla's father was a painter, and may have trained her before she entered the convent at just fourteen years old, but she was largely self-taught. She mentored other nuns in painting, and her studio eventually became quite famous, with its works in demand not just for churches and monasteries, but for private residences. She appears to have produced a large body of work, but only a few of her paintings and drawings survive, including a beautiful fresco of the Last Supper that she painted for Santa Catarina's refectory (the refectory painting in Passion Blue is based on this). Plautilla was one of the first recognized female Renaissance artists, and is one of the only female painters mentioned in Georgio Vasari's famous seventeenth-century reference work, Lives of the Painters.

Was this studio what provided the creative spark for the duology? Or should I say series? Is a third book in the works?

I actually didn't set out to write about painting at all. I originally intended to write a novel about astrology--but in the research and planning process the story morphed away from astrology (though there's still a lot of astrology in Passion Blue) and turned into a story about art. I'm still not quite sure how that happened! --although I've long been interested in the practically forgotten female painters of the Renaissance and Baroque eras.

However, I hadn't heard of Plautilla Nelli; she wasn't part of my college art history courses. I discovered her studio while I was researching, and knew immediately that this was the setting I wanted to use, not just for its uniqueness, but because I was fascinated by the tension between the rigid cloistering of the nuns and the paradoxical freedom that existed--for at least some nuns, though certainly not all--within the confinement of convent walls.

I don't have any plans for a third book. I'm not a natural series writer--the most I've managed so far are duologies, and I'm only able to figure out what Book 2 will be once Book 1 is done. At this point, I feel I've traveled far enough with Giulia. I want to move on.

I certainly got a strong sense of closure at the end of Color Song. So what are you moving on to?

I'm developing two projects and trying to decide which to commit to. One is a YA in a fantasy setting similar to Venice, about a poisoner's daughter (no similarity to Rappaccini) and what happens when a thief breaks in and accidentally exposes a dangerous secret about her birth that her father has kept hidden. The other is a fantasy for the adult market about the spiral of awful consequences that follow when a pivotal (like, intended to hold up the very fabric of reality) religious-magical ritual goes wrong due to human error, and the powers that be attempt to cover it up. I'm leaning toward the YA project, mostly because it would be shorter and take me less time to write, but the adult project is more compelling. On the other hand, another idea entirely may pop up...I don't know.

I don't like being in between books this way, and I don't usually have so much trouble deciding what to do next, but there's an ongoing family situation that's eating up a lot of my time and emotional energy and makes it hard to focus.

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this with me, Victoria. I hope your situation resolves well.

Review: Color Song

Giulia Borromeo's life is defined by walls, the walls of her convent, the walls of the cell into which she is locked every night, the walls of the society which decrees she can be only a servant, a nun, or a prostitute. But Giulia is an artist, a painter with a gift that is bigger than the small space her world wants to give it, a painter who can literally hear the song the pigments make as they await the artist's hand. And yet within the walls of her life, she had found an unexpected treasure, the only workshop for female artists in all of medieval Italy, presided over by a nun of immense talent, and a heart big enough to recognize and encourage Giulia's.

But when her mentor dies, the workshop leadership is assumed by Domenica, a woman with an entirely different attitude. Giulia knows that once she takes her final vows, she will be relegated to a lifetime of menial tasks, whether or not she accedes to the demand to yield up the secret formula for Passion Blue, a pigment that dazzles like no other. The only other option is fleeing the safety of the convent and throwing herself into a dangerous world for which she is totally unprepared, pursued by the unscrupulous man who desires Passion Blue above all else, and beset by all the other predators waiting to pounce on a solitary young woman with no street smarts, no resources, and no protector.

Kirkus Reviews named Passion Blue, Victoria Strauss's first book about Giulia Borromeo, a Best Teen Book of 2012. I had not read Passion Blue, but I did not find that to be much of a problem, as Strauss fills us in on the back-story without being unduly heavy-handed. The fantastical elements in the first seem to have been more pronounced; in Color Song they are negligible, consisting only in Giulia's ability to actually hear colors, a kind of enhanced synaesthesia.

Color Song is more historical fiction than fantasy. Above all else, it is a coming-of-age story, taking place in a world that gave women very few options. Giulia's determination to be an artist puts her in opposition to an entire society, and places her very life in danger.

The story is well-told, with excellent pacing. The author allows the tension to subside occasionally, but just when we – and Giulia – are starting to get a wee bit comfortable, another wave rocks the boat, or perhaps I should say gondola, seeing as the story takes place mostly in Venice. Strauss very ably makes us appreciate the magnitude of the challenges facing Giulia, as well as the sacrifices she must make in a society that will not allow her to be both a woman and a painter. The characters are also nicely sketched, although hewing perhaps a little too closely to well-worn stereotypes. It is not a fatal flaw, even less so in a book aimed at teen readers who have not yet been exposed to them multiple times.

It is my hope that Color Song will find a wider audience than just teenage girls. By squeezing us into the very narrow passages that society imposes on Giulia, it makes us appreciate her desperate efforts to scale the walls, literally and figuratively, and encourages us to reflect on the nature of oppression in all times and places.

As a special note to authors, Victoria Strauss is also well-known as the co-founder of Writer Beware, a website set up to protect writers from the various predators and dangers besetting them. You owe it to yourself to check into this invaluable resource.

Victoria Strauss's website

Writer Beware