Published by Del Rey Books on June 27th 2017
The Waking Land is a gorgeous new fantasy novel from debut author Callie Bates, and it was on my wishlist long before I had the opportunity to read it. There are just certain types of stories, while not entirely groundbreaking or new to the genre, that are just irresistible to me, and this is one of them. The book encompasses a lot of the elements I love, including a courageous heroine, an evocative magic system tied to the living earth, and a complex world built upon the political alliances and animosities between various kingdoms.
Things get off to a rather intense start, with the prologue opening on the scene of an interrupted dinner party. Our protagonist Elanna Valtai, five years old at this point, watches as her nurse is murdered in front of her eyes. Meanwhile, King Antoine and the rest of his royal guards are storming the house downstairs, putting an end to her father’s rebellion. To ensure no more attempted uprisings, Elanna’s parents are banished back to their ancestral home of Caeris, while Elanna herself is seized as a hostage, to be raised in the king’s household in Eren.
Fourteen years pass. For all that she is an outsider and the daughter of a known traitor, Elanna has been treated well by King Antoine, whom she regards and loves as a father. She has not seen her real parents since the night of the party, and Eren has become the only place she feels at home. In fact, she even has her future all planned out; once she comes of age, the king will send her off to study botany, where she will hone her gift of working with plants.
But then one day, King Antoine sickens and dies. And unfortunately, his heir Princess Loyce has never accepted Elanna, always ridiculing her for her Caerisian heritage. Worse, it has been ruled that the king died of poisoning, and being the botanical expert, Elanna is the number one suspect. With no other choice left to her, our protagonist is forced to flee back to her homeland and reunite with her estranged blood kin. It is there, however, where she discovers the truth about her birthright and the mysterious magical powers she always knew she had—and with that knowledge, she must lead a rebellion against the very kingdom to which she once pledged her loyalty.
While I realize this was not the most original plot, I didn’t care; books like The Waking Land are usually well represented in my reading repertoire despite their familiar elements, simply because I always know I’ll have a good time with them and they remind me of why I love the genre. Plus, there are certain aspects which were handled extremely well, like the world-building and magic. Under Bates’ deft touch, some of these well-known tropes are transformed into something slightly different—just enough to offer a bit of flavor without too much distraction. Take Elanna’s powers, for example. Earth magic is certainly nothing new in fantasy, but nevertheless, I enjoyed how the story introduced fresh context for it by incorporating some unique history and lore. Likewise, the conflicts between the kingdoms were interesting. After all, it’s rare to meet a heroine whose loyalties are torn in such a way, her dual roles of dutiful daughter vs. brainwashed hostage giving the political landscape a whole new dynamic.
Speaking of which, Elanna was a great character. At nineteen, she is dealing with a lot of “new adult” type problems on top of being accused of regicide, so it’s a bit of an emotional journey. The occasional moment of angst aside though, I found her to be likeable and down-to-earth (no pun intended). Undoubtedly, the author’s biggest challenge was to make Elanna’s transition from one side to the other believable, and I think for the most part Bates succeeded. Gradually, her protagonist’s eyes are opened to see beyond her upbringing, letting her take control of her own life and decide for herself what she wants to do.
In terms of criticisms, I only have a few, and none of them are deal breaking. I felt the pacing was a little off in places, especially with the amount of filler in the middle. There was also a romance plot that was emotionally flat and did little for me, its only saving grace being the fact that it probably wasn’t meant to be a big part of the story. I also wish that we’d gotten to see more of Elanna’s powers in the first half of the novel, though in all fairness, the book ultimately makes up for that with an epic magical showdown in the ending.
When all is said and done, I very much enjoyed this book. The Waking Land is not out to reinvent the wheel as far as the premise or the story goes, but I was nonetheless delighted and satisfied with the way it turned out. Callie Bates has concocted a magically captivating tale that will draw you in from the very first page, exactly the kind of fantasy novel I crave. A strong protagonist, an entertaining plot, and a well-crafted world are all reasons why this would make a great pick for any fantasy reader, especially if you enjoy a dash of enchantment and magic. The author has a bright future ahead of her, and I look forward to her next project.