Book Review: Callie Bates’ The Waking Land

1wakinglandlargecover[Please note: I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange only for an honest and thorough review. This is (to the best of my ability) a spoiler-free review.]

At age five, Lady Elanna was kidnapped by the king of Eren as collateral against her father’s barely-begun rebellion. In the Ereni court, El is both captive and resident, Caerisian and cherished pseudo-daughter to the king. But when the king who raised her like his own daughter dies mysteriously and his vengeful daughter takes the throne, El must flee the civilized land she knows and return to the magical, legendary homeland she left long ago. Once again, rebellion brews; battle looms; and El’s dormant powers are awakening. Will she accept her destiny, or will she reject what she has been raised to abhor and fear?

In Callie Bates’ debut young adult fantasy The Waking Land, loyalties are divided, battles are drawn, and magic, feared the world over, is reawakening. With adventure, romance, magic, and high stakes, The Waking Land is a gripping fantasy that recalls the courtly intrigue of Tamora Pierce, the moral and magical conundrums of Kristin Cashore, and the epic battles of George R.R. Martin. As Tamora Pierce herself proclaims, El’s world is brought to readers in “[a] heartbreaking, enchanting, edge-of-the-seat read that held me captive from start to finish!” Besides, who wouldn’t want to read a book with such a gorgeous (and green green green) cover?

The great strength of Bates’ debut was its world building: Having lived elsewhere for 15 years, El’s rediscovery of her homeland Caeris coincides exactly with the reader’s discovery of this new world as well. She must learn a complicated and dedicated array of beliefs, traditions, laws, and abilities that neither she nor the reader have ever experienced. Similarly, the land of Caeris — and its neighboring kingdoms — is well thought-out and articulated on the page. It is a world told through story, legend, song; a history lost to war and found again in the land and people itself. While some of El’s descriptions of the political state of things would bog down the pacing and other characters’ explanations of traditions or Caerisian oddities would get confusing, much of Bates’ world building is thorough, fascinating, and beyond beautiful. Caeris and its magic, history, and other unique attributes stand out from the slew of high fantasy novels — young adult or otherwise — that have graced the shelves in recent years.

While she could have fallen into the trap of well-worn fantasy heroine stereotype, Lady Elanna has a personality that doesn’t shoehorn her as damsel-in-distress, warrior princess, or wise sorceress. Instead, El has no idea what’s going on (but not in a Bella Swan way) and not only won’t rest until she uncovers the truth for herself but also refuses to let anyone else tell her what to do. Despite being surrounded primarily by dominant male characters (fathers, generals, princes, mages), there is rarely an instance in the book in which El doesn’t make her own decisions or course of action, even if said decisions or actions put herself or others in more danger than before. Such rare occasions to the contrary stand out as uncharacteristic and feel particularly shoehorned in, as if time or space were running out on the page. And, significantly for a YA piece, El has complete control of her sexuality and uses it and her own body as she wants. Unlike many YA sex scenes, the one featured here reveres and celebrates the female body, its sexuality, its sensuality, and makes El — amazingly, miraculously — stronger, more powerful. Interestingly, in a fantasy world that doesn’t seem to gesture to a lot of diversity, El and her mother are described as having darker skin, perhaps denoting that they are people of color. As a heroine, El exerts a policy of a no-nonsense, self-empowering go-getter who seeks knowledge, alliances, and power of her own accord.

In The Waking Land, there is a motley crew of characters to rival the complexity of J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin’s vast casts. However, El tends to shine above all the rest. Because the plot is told only from her first-person point of view, readers know her best and understand her best of all and spend the most time in her head (which, like in The Hunger Games, can get a little infuriating and circuitous). Other characters — especially other female characters — feature but rarely steal the spotlight. While there are several fellow female characters, El doesn’t have the chance or time to really interact with most of them as more than allies made in desperate times, though she does support the other girls emotionally and politically quite well. Similarly, El has a contradictory nature — trusting and distrusting, loving and hating, understanding and misunderstanding — that flares most when interacting with other characters and reveals quite a fiery personality.

The great show-stealer of Bates’ debut for me is, without a doubt, Jahan. He’s a riddle wrapped in dimples, secrets, and never-ending questions: Is he a spy? An ally? A magic? A fake? Can he be trusted? Can he not? Is he a cad? Or an honorable fellow? Does he get along with El? Or does he not? From the start, Jahan and El share a special connection that isn’t necessarily romantic to start, but their relationship makes it so, of all the characters, we know Jahan best. Despite this instant connection, however, El doesn’t let Jahan push her around or influence her from the start and this gestures to a relationship based in understanding, (sometimes angry) communication, and respect that isn’t often featured in young adult literature.

The only apparent weaknesses of The Waking Land pertain to pacing and repetitive tendencies. At times, the story is paced erratically, breezing past seemingly significant moments and dwelling on mundane catalogues of actions or emotions. This appears most often at the very start of the book; once the narrative hits its halfway point, the pacing evens out. In much the same way, the opening chapters of the book seem to suggest a significantly different story — more courtly intrigue — than we ultimately end up with, and this has mostly to do with El’s adamant insistence to start that she will never return to Caeris or ally with the Caerisians. This and other ideas, stories, and hindrances are consistently reiterated throughout the text when, often, they need only be mentioned once. Despite these slight snags in the narrative of Waking Land, Bates’ debut shines all the same on the strength of its world building and primary character.

Ultimately, Bates’ young adult fantasy novel is saturated with magic and legends, romance and rebellion, strength and resilience, is a young adult debut to watch. With questions of loyalty, of patriotism, of self-confidence, The Waking Land emphasizes the power and magic of story and self and creates a world to fascinate every reader.

Callie Bates’ The Waking Land was released 27 June 2017, with Random House Publishing imprint Ballantine Del Rey.

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