The prequel to this book, The Burning Land, was a well-imagined exploration of religious faith, hampered by some structural problems, and weakened by the author’s unwillingness to explore the issue as deeply as she might have. The Awakened City follows a similar path, though happily with better structure.
The Burning Land suffered from poor sequencing, with long, slow flashbacks and info-dumps getting in the way of the story. Similar problems afflict The Awakened City – poor sequencing, and unnecessary repetition, but after the first third, the book finds its pace. It starts, as did the prequel, with a religious/mythological text, but with the context now familiar, this one is far more interesting.
Strauss again declines to dig as deeply into her concept as she might. She steers clear of answers to the world’s major religious question – does god exist or not? Strauss does offer some hints, only to undercut them later. It’s a reasonable literary decision to provide no easy answers, but the argument is weakened by Strauss’ choice of at least one of the narrative points of view, which should have answered at least one of the mysteries, and thus hinted strongly at the major questions.
I wish that Strauss had taken a position, but since she doesn’t the story also has to work well as an adventure, and here she’s more successful. Gyalo and Râvar both undergo quite a bit of soul searching, and it’s well-handled. While these key characters are frustrating from the outside, internally they’re complex and credible. While Strauss could have taken each of them further, the path of each protagonist is fairly satisfying.
What’s left out is information about Axane’s psyche. We see her mainly from Gyalo’s perspective, and I think that does her a disservice. She’s the logical third point of a character triangle, and a strong character in her own right. Where in the first book, she provided a key point of view, here she’s mainly a maiden-in-distress prop. Not only could she have provided another narrative view, (and I’d rather have had her than Sundit – one of the religious rulers), she’d have offered a key perspective on the book’s central religious theme. Plus, I could have sworn she played a greater theological role – in fact, I still think she does, though Strauss nowhere specifically implies this.
There are a few odds and ends that should have been tidied up – some careless errors of consistency, some loose ends, but largely this is a good book, and better than its predecessor. Strauss missed some chances to make the duology great, but it’s still much worth reading.