The Waking Land: Too many issues

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The Waking Land by Callie Bates fantasy book reviewsThe Waking Land by Callie Bates fantasy book reviewsThe Waking Land
by Callie Bates

I’m sure there’s an audience for Callie Bates’ debut novel The Waking Land, but after reaching the halfway point (53% to be precise), I also became sure that I was not it, leading to a DNF review.

The story, which has some clear (at times perhaps too clear) historical referents, is set in a world where hundreds of years ago the nation of Caeris conquered the neighboring nation of Eren, while much more powerful than either of them is the empire of Paladis. More recently, about a decade ago, Elanna Valtai’s noble father tried to lead a rebellion to free Eren and bring back the “king in exile,” but his plans were discovered and while he was clever enough so that Caeris had no rock-hard proof, he was exiled to his estate while then five-year-old Elanna was taken hostage by Caeris’ King Antoine. Fast forward to when El is now a smart, beautiful young woman in her teens, having been raised as one of his own by the King (much to his real daughter’s dismay, as evidenced by her hatred of El). When King Antoine dies mysteriously, El is accused of his murder and is forced to flee, which ends up entangling her in her father’s new rebellious plotting, thanks to the fact that she exhibits the ancestral and singular power of the one who can “wake the land.” Romance complicates matters, as the “prince in exile” would seem to be the perfect match for El to cement his position, while the Empire’s ambassador, there to decide whether the Emperor should add his substantial assistance to the rebellion, is a dashing young sorcerer-in-hiding (all magic has long been outlawed on pain of death) to whom El is instantly attracted.

And therein lies wince number one for me. I confess I long ago grew weary of the YA insta-romance (to be fair, this doesn’t just bedevil YA, though it does seem to be more prevalent there). But it’s so ubiquitous that I soldiered on, but the many references to his eyes, the feel of his forearm below his breast, the way he looked at her like nobody else ever had, etc., began to pile up way too frequently for me. The Waking Land is told in first-person POV, and this exacerbated the issue because the voice and what was being voiced was becoming too monotonous.

It isn’t that all Elanna thought of was the dashing young sorcerer, but unfortunately, the other thing she thought of didn’t diminish the monotony all that much, basically being limited to “I hate my father; I don’t want to face my father” and “Do I really have power, and how strong is it, and do I really want to use it?” The annoyance factor of these two thoughts was heightened not just by their constant repetition, but because the reader already knows that a) you’re going to face your father and b) yes, you have power, and yes, you will use it. I felt I was just ping-ponging amongst these three strands, back and forth, back and forth, experiencing an increasingly desperate desire to break out of El’s mind, and while I’m not sure which of the three thoughts strands was the last straw, one of them certainly was. And it wasn’t just the interior monologues; this repetitiveness expressed itself in dialogue as well.

Beyond these issues, the characters felt thin, the world-building too thinly-layered atop history, the relationships a bit too trite at times (the spiteful resentful quasi-sister, the dashing young sorcerer, the sternly distant father, the girl born into her role, etc.), there’s a fair amount of clumsy early exposition (having the character roll her eyes at the being told what she already knows doesn’t negate the clumsiness), El is far too naïve about things even given her youth, there are logistical issues with some scenes, and plausibility issues with others. To be fair, it’s quite possible the clichés or shallow characterization got overturned or deeper in the latter half of the The Waking Land, or maybe the second half is all in someone else’s voice, and if so, I owe the author an apology. But by that halfway point, I’d already been seriously pushing myself along, and finally decided enough was enough. Not recommended.

Published June 27, 2017. In the lush and magical tradition of Naomi Novik’s award-winning Uprooted comes this riveting debut from brilliant young writer Callie Bates—whose boundless imagination places her among the finest authors of fantasy fiction, including Sarah J. Maas and Sabaa Tahir. Lady Elanna is fiercely devoted to the king who raised her like a daughter. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is accused of his murder—and must flee for her life. Returning to the homeland of magical legends she has forsaken, Elanna is forced to reckon with her despised, estranged father, branded a traitor long ago. Feeling a strange, deep connection to the natural world, she also must face the truth about the forces she has always denied or disdained as superstition—powers that suddenly stir within her. But an all-too-human threat is drawing near, determined to exact vengeance. Now Elanna has no choice but to lead a rebellion against the kingdom to which she once gave her allegiance. Trapped between divided loyalties, she must summon the courage to confront a destiny that could tear her apart.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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5 comments

  1. Several times I toyed with the idea of requesting a copy of this book for review, since it kept popping up in my feeds, and I really like the cover image. Glad I passed!

    • I’m in the same boat! I may pick it up at some point if I see it at the library, just in case the second half gets any better than the first.

  2. I was eyeing this one in B&N recently because of the cover. Yikes, it doesn’t sound like it’s up my alley after all.

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