Del Rey books was kind enough to provide me with a Netgalley copy of Callie Bates’s recent debut, The Waking Land. I really wanted to like it, but most of the time I was reading it, this book put me to sleep. Read on to see where this fantasy could have gone better.
Lady Elanna Valtai is fiercely devoted to the King who raised her like a daughter. But when he dies under mysterious circumstances, Elanna is accused of his murder and must flee for her life.
Returning to the homeland of magical legends she has forsaken, Elanna is forced to reckon with her despised, estranged father, branded a traitor long ago. Feeling a strange, deep connection to the natural world, she also must face the truth about the forces she has always denied or disdained as superstition, powers that suddenly stir within her.
But an all-too-human threat is drawing near, determined to exact vengeance. Now Elanna has no choice but to lead a rebellion against the kingdom to which she once gave her allegiance. Trapped between divided loyalties, she must summon the courage to confront a destiny that could tear her apart.
The premise of this book was amazing: nature magic, complicated family ties, rebellion! I am a 100% nature nerd. I never, ever would have dreamed that an imprint of a major publisher would publish a YA book like this, with such a strong natural science element. Bates’s love of the outdoors shines through. I cannot stress how excited I was to read a book about an aspiring botanist who studies forest composition, knows how to identify trees, and sketches mushrooms.
Even though I am basically the ideal audience for this book, I could not get into. At all. In fact, forcing myself to read more than ten pages at a time was awful. If I didn’t feel obligated to finish and review the book, I would have quit no later than halfway into the book. What went wrong here, with so much promise?
For starters, the main character. Elanna’s character concept was great. Her struggle between embracing her family and heritage and feeling loyal to the culture she was raised in (also, Stockholm syndrome) was one of the things about the synopsis that drew me to the book. Unfortunately, the Stockholm syndrome aspect was brushed over, and Elanna’s status as a reluctant heroine seriously hindered the plot.
Elanna is, understandably, unwilling to give up her life’s goals and put herself in serious danger for a cause she doesn’t even believe in. But that means that the plot moving forward is directly counter to her character’s goals for a good chunk of the book. And once she had failed at running away from her fate three or four times? She showed absolutely no agency! Events, even serious, life-altering plot events, just happened to her without her participating or even fully understanding for almost the whole book. On the rare occasions when Elanna did make some decisions of her own, I found myself groaning because her decisions made no sense. For example, despite complaining for most of the book about not understanding her powers or having enough control of them to actually help her people, Elanna repeatedly refuses a request-slash-order to go meet with the only people who can teach her more about her magic. Come on, El.
The world building was pretty cursory and shallow. Bates put in just enough information about the various countries and cultures for you to get a vague idea of them: a pseudo-France, a Greco-Roman style empire, a slightly pagan-Celtic territory. Anything beyond the most basic flavoring of this fantasy world was so forgettable that I struggle to recall it now.
And then there was the romance.
The Waking Land has, quite possibly, the most severe case of insta-love I’ve ever seen. About halfway into the first chapter, Elanna chances upon a dashing young man with a warm and deep voice. Obviously, he is handsome interesting, and El remarks, “This man[…] makes Martin Bonnaire, whom I’ve been swanning over for months, look like a sorry sack. And he is staring right back at me, as if I’m worth looking at.”
So far as I can tell, the relationship hinges exclusively on the fact that the love interest looks at Elanna like he really sees her. From that point on, she’s basically smitten with this guy who mystically understands the “real her” by sight alone. Despite the awful, cringe-worthy start to the romance, Bates does occasionally manage to make it surprisingly cute once the couple is established.
As this book approached the climax, it did pick up the pace and manage to better hold my interest, but that was not enough of a reward for the two weeks it took me to slog through to the end.
Apparently, this book is going to be the first in a series. I have no interest in continuing. That being said, though, I would absolutely consider reading future books by Bates. I didn’t care at all for Leigh Bardugo’s debut when it came out, but Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom were both phenomenal! I am optimistic for Bates’s potential, and look forward to reading some of her future work–as long as it doesn’t feature Lady Elanna.
All in All…
- 2/5 sea stars
- Published June 17th, 2017, by Del Rey Books
- 400 pages
- For fans of headstrong MCs, first person narration, botany, Celtic-inspired settings
I received this book free through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.