In The Burning Land, Victoria Strauss begins a new fantasy series - her take on the classic tale of a journey. Gyalo, a young priest, has the gift to Shape the world around him. Like all Shapers, his abilities are carefully regulated by his church, and by the drugs they require him to take. He uses his gift only in the ceremonies of his God. Gyalo is a student of history, and he knows the havoc that uncontrolled Shapers have wreaked in the past. So when he is chosen to travel across the sacred, barren Burning Lands to find a colony of refugees that includes uncontrolled Shapers, he knows what he may face.
But nothing, of course, is that simple. In the course of his journey, Gyalo’s faith and resolve are tested. He meets Axane, the only descendant of the original refugees who still believes the rest of the world exists. Like Gyalo, she bears gifts that shape her life, but unlike Gyalo, she refuses to harness them to God. She wants, more than anything, the freedom to visit Gyalo’s world.
They return together across the waste, but Gyalo is utterly changed from his journey and what he finds at the end of it. He struggles to deal with this, and with the loss of his old life. Axane, too, struggles to find the freedom she dreamed of, and with the divided loyalties of her new and old homes.
Strauss ably deals with the initial separation of her protagonists, telling the first third of the book in alternating viewpoints from the two ends of the journey. The beginning of the book is somewhat bogged down in detail and backstory as she strives to orient us in the complex world that she has created. The problem gets better once Gyalo leaves for his journey, since the author can then present new information to us through the eyes of a character, rather than as information dumps.
Gyalo and Axane are easy to like, but not simple, and the reader is quickly involved in their turmoil and emotional state. Although Strauss presents complete arcs for each character, she has left herself lots of room for a sequel. All in all, this is a well-realized and original treatment of a long-used archetype. I look forward to more from the series.