When a book has words of praise on the cover from Tamora Pierce, that’s about all the encouragement I need to give that novel a try. Thankfully, The Waking Land by Callie Bates did not disappoint. It’s a solidly enjoyable (albeit not perfect) tale about a young woman who’s been a pawn all of her life and now has to figure who she is and what she wants in the midst of a revolutionary war.
Written in first person, the reader spends the entire book in Lady Elanna Valtai’s head and experiences her confusion, second thoughts, and successes right along with her. The Waking Land works because Elanna feels like such a real person. At age five, she was taken from her family by the king as a hostage to ensure their good behavior and to make sure they won’t try and rebel again. Over the next fifteen years, she falls prey to Stockholm Syndrome and identifies more with the people of Eren than those of her homeland Caeris. She even thinks fondly of the king who held a gun to her head. When he’s murdered, she doesn’t immediately jump with glee and run home to her family with open arms. In fact, she doesn’t even want to leave when they do come for her. It’s a complicated emotional journey for El as she tries to figure out whose side she’s on, who she is, and what the right thing to do is all while trying to learn about her particular brand of earth magic. People are so infrequently always rational and Bates captures that perfectly with Elanna.
Speaking of earth magic, it’s a refreshing sort of magic for a fantasy novel like this. Admittedly I didn’t quite get the point of marrying the land but the entire concept was cool to read about. Equally fascinating is the rest of the world that Bates builds. It could have benefited from a little more exploration and explanation than first person allowed for but it was intriguing nonetheless. I particularly liked how Caeris is ruled by a sort of triumvirate with the elected king/queen, the steward of the land, and the warden of the mountain with each fulfilling their specific function and none truly flourishing without the others.
Another great thing about The Waking Land is that there are plenty of distinct female characters; none of whom fight over a man. While I would have liked to spend more time with some of them, Victoire, Sophy, and Rhia all have distinct voices and aren’t just passive characters who waited for men to fight the war. They contribute in their own ways which had every bit as much value as taking up a sword or pistol.
It’s not a perfect book though. The romance isn’t anything special and feels a little like it was put into the book because it was expected although I did like the love interest well enough. The ending also felt very chaotic and rushed; almost as if the author suddenly realized she had a page count limit and needed to wrap things up. It could have used a little more room to breath.
The Waking Dead is a strong debut novel from Callie Bates and a worthy addition to the fantasy young adult world. While not breathtaking, the realness of its protagonist does make it worth your time.