The Waking Land, Callie Bates’ debut novel, is the first book in a new epic fantasy trilogy featuring a heroine with conflicting loyalties and the power to wake the land like her ancestors of old, an ability last possessed two hundred years ago. Though I can understand why this new release is often compared to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale due to its wild magic and the heroine’s connection with nature, it’s not a comparison I would make: The Waking Land does not have the same fairy tale quality as either of these, and in my opinion, it falls far short of both these novels.

When Elanna was five years old, the royal guard barged into her nursery, murdered her nurse, and brought her to the adults’ interrupted dinner party, where she witnessed King Antoine pointing a gun at her father, the Duke of Caeris. The king then placed the weapon against Elanna’s head and accused her father of betraying the crown but, since there was a lack of concrete evidence of wrongdoing, he also declared he would be merciful. Instead of having the duke tried and executed, he took his frightened young daughter as a hostage, promising to treat her well—that is, as long as her father remains loyal to king and country, of course.

Fourteen years later, Elanna has come to love King Antoine like a father and feels that she may even have a stronger relationship with him than his own daughter. She’s grateful that he rescued her from life in the unrefined backwater in which she was born and enabled her to be raised in civilization with a proper education, especially since he’s encouraged her desire to study botany. Since she was a child, Elanna has been able to make plants grow simply by touching them and awaken specters from the stones simply by dropping her blood upon them, though she hides these abilities and immerses herself in science instead as witchcraft is strictly forbidden. However, once a year she allows herself to sneak away from the palace to visit an old circle of stones, where she spills her blood and witnesses its power to conjure apparitions.

After Elanna returns from her latest annual trip to the stones, she goes to the greenhouse but finds it odd that she can’t find her mentor or the deadly mushroom she’s observing as part of her studies. She soon receives news that the king has been poisoned, and her teacher has been taken prisoner due to his knowledge in this area—but when the king dies, suspicion falls on Elanna, forcing her to flee her home.

Though she’s soon found by her father’s people, Elanna doesn’t trust Caerisians or the family she’s not heard from since the night she was taken hostage, nor does she want to become a pawn in her father’s revolution. Yet if Caeris is to gain its freedom, its only hope may be Elanna and her power of waking the land.

The Waking Land had potential to be a captivating novel, and I appreciated that the author added an unusual spin to the story through Elanna’s characterization. Despite a strong opening, I did find myself considering leaving the book unfinished a few times during the first fifteen percent due to the first person present tense narration and the main character herself, but it soon became difficult to put down. Unfortunately, I found myself rushing through the last quarter in order to finish it and move on to the next book, and I ended up feeling that it failed to deliver a novel that was worth the time spent reading it. Though the history and lore of the world stand out to an extent, it incorporated a lot of common fantasy tropes with forbidden magic, old magic reappearing, and revolution, and there was not much that I found memorable besides Elanna’s internal conflict.

At first, Elanna seemed fickle since one moment she’d be sneaking away to do magic and the next she’d be reflecting on magic as evil and unsophisticated. However, it seems as though she’s trying to convince herself this is what she believes because it’s much easier to survive in a country rife with witch hunters if she stifles that side of herself. Even aside from that, it seems as though it would be difficult for her to shake these ideas: she was taken from her home when she was only five years old, and she’s grown up hearing this and knowing that there are severe consequences for witchcraft. She has few memories of her own family, and she’s forgiven King Antoine for holding a gun to her head when she was young since it was a political move that saved the country, and he’s been nothing but kind to her since that day—plus she feels abandoned by her parents since they never rescued her or contacted her, and I suspect that also made it easier for her to replace them with the king who threatened her as a child. Furthermore, she’s struggling with guilt over a mistake innocently made when she was too young to understand what she did. Her feelings and life are quite complicated, and I thought this added some interesting dimension to her character. She didn’t always make the best decisions, but I could understand the fears and psychology that drove her to behave as she did.

The aspects of the novel that are not focused on the complexities of Elanna’s mindset were not as compelling, though, and other than that, The Waking Land is a rather average book at best. Elanna is recklessly brave and compassionate in a way that is familiar for main protagonists, and her narrative voice is not particularly engaging, even irritating at times because of being told in first person present tense. It also seems as though the people around her think far more highly of her than she deserves (unless they are antagonists, of course), citing that she may have some ability to be persuasive because she is ‘charming and well spoken.’ In no way did I feel she proved herself to be either of these, and it’s not possible they saw another side of her not shown to readers: those suggesting she possessed these qualities had either just met her or become reacquainted with her for the first time since she was taken hostage.

Most of the other characters are not terribly compelling either, and if they are, it’s mainly because they have mysterious motivations or secrets rather than because they possess depth and personality. There is a romance between Elanna and one of these characters, and though it’s understandable why the two would be drawn to each other given some similarities between them, it also seems too quickly developed given the amount of time they spend together and their interactions. Despite some commonalities, their romance seems to primarily be based on physical attraction, which certainly isn’t unrealistic but also doesn’t make a relationship interesting to read about.

Though The Waking Land does have some positive qualities—a strong beginning, a deeply and understandably conflicted heroine—and was even a page-turner at times, it didn’t manage to hold my attention all the way to the end. It grew into a more standard, predictable tale, and even the epic finale fell flat for me because I didn’t find the characters, prose, or world fascinating enough to make up for this.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Waking Land