Callie Bates first novel, The Waking Land is an exciting fantasy story that I can imagine becoming a good series. It has all the elements, a struggle for liberation from an oppressive regime, the awakening of lost knowledge, and the age-old struggle between magic and science all embodied by Elanna Valtai. She has been a hostage guaranteeing her father’s submission to the King for fourteen years, ever since she was five. Growing up among the Ereni, she identifies with them. She wants to be a botanist and has a fascination for science. But when the King is murdered and she is accused, she must flee, reluctantly, back to Caeris, her homeland that she has come to think of as backward and filled with superstition.
She is helped by Jahan, an ambassador from the Empire whom she instinctively trusts. It’s clear to readers before it’s clear to them that here is the love interest despite the complicating presence of Finn, the Young Pretender to the throne whom her father betrothed to her when she was five. The biggest complication, though maybe their salvation, is El’s growing magical power–power prohibited by the Empire that conquered their land over two hundred years ago. She has the power to manipulate the land and everything that comes from the land, wood, stones, and animals. Perhaps, if she could harness her power, they might have a chance.
I liked The Waking Land a lot. El’s magic is unique and fresh and when Bates writes about El’s union with the land it is lyrical and vivid. This is a new kind of magic and it’s exciting and imaginative. The internal struggle between science and magic is perhaps too easily resolved for Elanna, missing the opportunity to exploit her botanical expertise in employing her magical talent. Imagine if her interest in botany were not just a safe expression of her subsumed magical talent, but something she could use to enhance her talent.
I had to remind myself several times that El was just nineteen and that Stockholm Syndrome, whether named or not, clearly affected her worldview because her antipathy toward her homeland was extreme, to the point of endangering herself. After all, if you’re fleeing for your life, most of us would go with people associated with our family who are there to help rather than try to flee to third parties who could betray us. She also was troubled by secret guilt for her actions when she was five. I had no patience for that, a five year old does not have the awareness to be culpable in crimes of state.
Even with those few problems, The Waking Land is a strong fantasy story. It had a cadre of strong characters, some of them quite complicated, even inexplicably so. There is real hazard in this story and not all come through unscathed. The conceit of a land that can shift, trees that can not only sing in the breeze, but defend the land, and the magic that allows one to call the land into battle is fresh and lends itself to wonderfully descriptive passages with the land that were pure magic. While the story stands alone, it does seem primed for a sequel which I am already eagerly anticipating.
The Waking Land will be released June 27th. I received an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.