Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
The Burning Land
Victoria Strauss
HarperCollins Eos, 480 pages

The Burning Land
Victoria Strauss
Victoria Strauss was born in Exeter, New Hampshire. Throughout her life, she has traveled extensively, living in several U.S. states, as well as Ireland, England and Germany. She graduated from Vassar College with a degree in Comparative Religion. Her novels include The Lady of Rhuddesmere, Worldstone, Guardian of the Hills, The Arm of the Stone and its sequel, The Garden of the Stone. The Burning Land is the first half of a duology. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her husband Rob.

Victoria Strauss Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Victoria Strauss
SF Site Excerpt: The Burning Land
SF Site Review: The Garden of the Stone
SF Site Review: The Arm of the Stone
Review: The Burning Land
Review: The Burning Land
Review: The Burning Land
Review: The Burning Land

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Przybyszewski

There are books that make me wonder why I read fantasy. There are books, more than I like to admit, that are written carelessly, soullessly, and without character. There are books that tempt me to consider forever turning to my collections of Hemmingway and Faulkner. Books that push me to forget the worlds of fairy altogether.

Then, there are books by Victoria Strauss, who wrote The Arm of the Stone and The Garden of the Stone.

In her third book, Strauss presents something special in the The Burning Land. Along with a new world of politics, religion, power, and faith, she presents a simple coming of age story of one priest named Gyalo, a Shaper of great magical power and of greater soul.

Gyalo is sent by a deity incarnate and the head of his religion to investigate happenings on the other side of his world, where errant Shapers have moved away from the teachings of his church. What he finds is immense, and his journey takes him to the far ends of this beautifully described existence.

Here's an example of that description:

"The arid hills that made up this Thurxa Notch spread about before [Gyalo], bracketed to the east and west by towering snowcapped peaks, glowing pale apricot in the light of the rising sun. The dry earth was broken everywhere by rock, like skin worn down to the bone; it supported only short tufted grasses and the occasional scrubby bush."
Strauss skillfully draws the reader into this world, and then paints vivid scenes, using all five senses. Her focused imagery further illuminates the world. In this example, she calls the land "skin worn down to the bone." One can only foreshadow the trials awaiting Gyalo in the harsh land before him. However, this harshness is tempered by beauty and life, as the coloring of the mountain peaks suggests.

Here's another description in which Gyalo takes his morning regimen of the drug manita, a substance that limits his Shaper powers:

"Returning to his travel pack, [Gyalo] dug out a large leather pouch and a flat silver box. The pouch, lined with several layers of waxed silk, held two years' supply of manita... Inside the box, each cradled in its own felt-lined compartment, was a tiny silver scoop, a silver tube slightly flared at one end, and a disc of beaten silver about as big as his palm."
Once again, the reader is given a substantially visual piece; the full detail of the manita box is clear. However, Strauss uses this opportunity to use imagery to make the reader notice how the manita is "cradled in its own felt-lined compartment," as if the design of the box mimics Gyalo's own safety zone. As long as he can take his drug, he is in control of his powers (or in the control of his church, which is comfortable to him in this scene as well).

The description can sometimes take over the story. Strauss has the tendency to allow her narrator to speak too much. Some aspects of this world such as its history, its political structures, and its theology could be better shown through the actions of the characters in the story.

For example, here is Strauss' description of the character Rikoyu, a servant and interpreter of the Dreamers, another group of magical beings in this world:

"Gyalo did not particularly like Rikoyu, a stolid, humorless man whose literal-mindedness completely belied his delicate and subtle profession; but it was impossible not to feel sympathy for him, for the Dreamers treated him dreadfully, and he bore the brunt of their many petty dissatisfactions and angers."
The description itself is solid, and the reader has a clear picture of this man Rikoyu from the point of view of the narrator. However, imagine what the reader could have learned if Strauss presented the same information in action, say by Rikoyu's words, deeds, and thoughts. Also, Strauss could have given Gyalo's impressions of the man through his conversations with Rikoyu. Instead, the characters barely talk in this scene, and all the reader has with which to work is the narrator's voice.

Part of Strauss' reason to do this, I think, is that she has a tremendous world to convey to the reader. She has obviously created a world rich in detail, and she has planned its depth with enthusiasm and imagination. However, in this glut of information about the world, the story can sometimes be lost, and the reader might be confused with the variety of new words (there is a glossary), historical events, and religious happenings.

This is not a completely bad thing at all. I would prefer a rich world full of detail rather than a sparse one that lacks the quality and depth of Strauss' writing. Still, the reader should be ready to pore over this text at least twice, in order completely discover the subtle detailing that Strauss labored to put into the text.

The Burning Land is a book about faith. I am happy to say that it has restored mine.

Copyright © 2004 Chris Przybyszewski

Chris learned to read from books of fantasy and science fiction, in that order. And any time he can find a graphic novel that inspires, that's good too.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide