I first encountered Strauss’ writing many years ago via her Arm of the Stone books, which I enjoyed, and which brought me to this duology. I’m sorry to say that I enjoyed The Burning Land less on re-reading than memory suggested.
The Burning Land is fundamentally about faith and devotion – a thoughtful exploration of belief and temptation. It approaches the subject from an essentially religious viewpoint, examining the emotional impact of doubt on a true believer, without really questioning whether belief is valuable overall. The result is, like Christian rock music, interesting, but slightly alien.
Strauss draws heavily on Christianity in this story – there are clear parallels in the religious storyline, just as the atheist Caryaxist government is a thinly disguised proxy for a Communist regime. It feels like a setup for a heavy-handed Message – and yet there isn’t really one. The book is surprisingly entertaining despite its leanings.
While the book is focused largely on analysis of the feelings of Gyalo and Axane, a young woman he meets, there’s a distance between us and them that makes the experience tend more toward intellectual than emotional. Gyalo is unflinching in confronting challenges to his beliefs, but he largely stays within that belief system – considering issues of heresy and apostasy. He touches only tangentially on larger questions about whether faith is warranted at all, making the book less substantive and engaging than it could have been. Strauss does better with his emotional responses, which feel both genuine and intriguing. She keeps a strict focus on religious and story-present-day elements – there’s clearly an interesting backstory about Gyalo’s youth, but he himself barely considers it.
The book starts with a formal religious structure that frankly is not interesting until it fits into the structure of the story. You’re best off skipping the prologue and coming back to it after reading a chapter or two. The mythic/religious structure is in fact interesting, but only in context. Despite the story’s foundation in religion, and Gyalo’s constant consideration of it, the ‘heresy’ at the book’s core never really hits home. We have to rely on Strauss’ cues to know just how ‘odious’ it is. Given that this tension is a linchpin of the plot, the detail seemed surprisingly unimportant.
The story takes place soon after great political struggles, but references to the past are clumsy. Unlike, for example, Tamar Siler Jones’ books, set in the aftermath of great battles but focused on the present, Strauss spends quite a lot of time setting out past events that are mildly interesting but substantially slow the story’s progress. In the first third of the book, it seems as if every chapter has a long pseudo-flashback or info dump that should have been trimmed and blended in instead.
All in all, an interesting an unusual-for-fantasy direct look at faith and belief. If the story doesn’t delve as deep as it might, it’s still interesting, and a fairly solid adventure romance besides.