Can you ever really fight belief?
The Burning Land, by Victoria Strauss, was quite the most interesting fantasy novel I read in 2004. The sequel, The Awakened City, is now available and is the subject of this review. Iím always fascinated when other writers tackle something I steer well clear of and make a resounding success of it. In this instance that something is religion. Too often fantasy authors simply use gods either as heroes writ large or as convenient routes out of plot tangles. Few ever examine the complex implications of belief and religion influencing daily life. But if fantasy is to be a magic mirror, showing us new insights into topical issues, surely in this day and age religion must be addressed?
In The Burning Land, the ancient Aratist faith came under threat. This doctrine had been long guarded by the Brethren, those identified in each generation as the reincarnated souls of the sons and daughters of the First Messenger. As long as the god Arata slept, they would be reborn to preserve his message. But when an expedition was sent into the scorching desert to find a long-lost enclave of co-religionists the humble devotee Gyalo brought back proof that Arata had already risen. The Brethren ordered that such heresy be brutally suppressed, along with all evidence of the enclave, a place called Refuge. Not only did the people of Refuge have dangerous views about Arata, they also didnít subscribe to the doctrine that demands the hobbling of Shapers, those who can wield awesome power over the natural world. As a sworn Aratist Shaper, Gyaloís own magic had long been ritually dulled with the drug Manita. Even when he knew his full strength, he submitted once more to the doctrine. That didnít save him from those determined to kill him.
As The Awakened City opens, we find Gyalo has managed to survive. Now he lives a quiet life as a scribe with Axane, a healer woman who gains magical insights through her dreams. Together they have found a measure of happiness, as long as no one knows who they are. Gyalo would be condemned as an apostate since he will no longer tolerate any limiting of his magic now. Axane still fears the only other survivor from the destruction of Refuge, Ravar. He is an unfettered Shaper and as such, incredibly dangerous. Heís also the father of her child.
Ravar, of course, has set his sights on revenge, and against more than just Axane or Gyalo. Twisted with guilt and hatred, he is using his formidable powers to convince a growing number of once-faithful Aratists that he is the Next Messenger. There is a hunger in this world for religious consolation, after eighty years of suppression by the Caryaxists. Ravar doesnít know about any of this, nor does he care. He is setting out to bring down the Brethren. He is determined to destroy all Aratists by corrupting them with blasphemy to blacken their souls. What he seeks above all else is revenge upon his god.
The Brothers and Sisters have their own troubles even before Ravar appears on the horizon. Their power has been restored at the cost of compromise with the very secular king, Santaxma. Those involved in the destruction of Refuge are troubled by it while others of their number continue to connive in factional infighting. Thereís also the unanswered puzzle of Gyalo. Was he, as some believe, truly the Next Messenger?
The book is as full of questions for the reader as the world is for those who live in it. In the beginning we wonder if the god Arata truly exists. If Shapers are able to create water or gold out of nothing in this world, surely it makes sense to believe in the god who created the whole world in the first place? Soon we have more urgent concerns. As Axane and her child are stolen away by Ravarís minions, will Gyalo ever be able to find her? Will the Brethren be able to work together to defeat Ravar or will they be brought low by their own divisions? When the Sister Sundit is sent to open negotiations with Ravar, she is faced with appalling betrayal and dreadful choices. What consequences will flow from Santaxmaís inability to fully comprehend what heís facing? Will the kingís lack of faith prove to be a fatal weakness or a strength? What will happen if Ravar ever succumbs to doubt in his own abilities? What will his followers do then? Will Gyaloís humility, his lack of arrogant certainty, ultimately prove a key to salvation?
As every character struggles with uncertainty, and the reader works through the intricacies of their actions and reactions, itís apparent that the author knows exactly what she is doing and where she is going. This hot, dusty, alien world is vividly realized, a far cry from the misty vagueness of fake medievalism. The characters are wholly believable, be they sympathetic or repellent. To show us all sides to this story, Strauss moves from viewpoint to viewpoint with smooth assurance. The pace is sufficiently fast and fluid enough to keep those pages turning. Successive revelations simultaneously solve puzzles while posing new ones. Crucially, thereís a tangible sense of real peril threatening all those involved, even ultimately the all-powerful Ravar. With nearly half the book left to go, thereís a shock that jolted me into staring at the page, wondering just what Victoria Strauss was going to do next.
And masterly as the writing is, what impresses me most is how the author weaves the intangible nature of belief inextricably into this tale. The extent to which every character does or does not believe in Arata is central to this story. Their faith or lack of it governs all their choices, for good and ill. The sheer impossibility of fighting belief is crucial to the final outcome. Men can be killed. It is far, far harder to kill ideas.
This is a thrilling story that works supremely well as fiction while prompting thoughtful reflection on the fundamentalism and secularism complicating our world today. Thatís an achievement in any work of literature, never mind the fantasy genre. To my mind, this book shows just what the best of SF&F can do, when so-called literary fiction so often ducks such difficult issues.