I received this book for free from Publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!! This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
Series: The Gold Seer Trilogy #1
Published by Greenwillow Books on September 22nd, 2015
Genres: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
The first book in a new trilogy from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Rae Carson. A young woman with the magical ability to sense the presence of gold must flee her home, taking her on a sweeping and dangerous journey across Gold Rush–era America.
Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety? Rae Carson, author of the acclaimed Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, dazzles with this new fantasy that subverts both our own history and familiar fantasy tropes.
Walk on Earth a Stranger, the first book in this new trilogy, introduces—as only Rae Carson can—a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance. Includes a map and author’s note on historical research.
Oh how I wish I had loved this more. Rae Carson and I have had a kind of rocky relationship till now. Though I wouldn’t say I really disliked the Fire and Thorns series, I was never really impressed, and the hype completely baffled me. Despite that, I decided to give Walk on Earth a Stranger a shot, hoping that different characters in a different setting with a different story would finally let me fall in love with this author like almost all of my friends are. But… unfortunately… I’m still unimpressed. Walk on Earth a Stranger is a perfectly adequate and average novel, but when I read books, I want more.
Walk on Earth a Stranger is a historical fiction/fantasy story about the California gold rush and the many pioneers who set out across the country hoping to reach the fortunes they’ve always dreamed of. Our main character, Leah, has a secret, magical gift: she can sense when gold is near. This gift however, leads to the murder of her parents by her uncle, who hopes to exploit her. Desperate to stay out of his manipulative clutches, she runs away to take on the trail herself.
Though no part of this book really made me mad, disappointed, or squeamish (the childbirth scene notwithstanding), every part of it just screamed average to me. Leah’s a pretty good main character, but I didn’t fall in love with her. I appreciate her thirst for independence – going so far as dress like a boy to give herself more freedom to escape from her uncle – and the lengths she goes to to protect and help others. She takes on tough manual labor and work that no woman chooses or is allowed to do, and she kicks some men’s butts at it. But other than that, her personality didn’t really sparkle. She’s not particularly witty or funny or charming. Maybe I was lacking a sense of complexity in her character and her voice.
Plot-wise, I was mildly entertained but also a bit let down. I mean, the beginning was really strong – Leah discovering her parents’ murder, the small-town Georgian atmosphere, the appearance of her shady Uncle, and her decision to don the guise of a boy to escape from it all. But after that, it was walking. And walking. And riding a horse. And riding a boat. And riding a wagon. And walking. I mean, she meets people along the way, and there are some interesting interactions there, but they’re traveling for the entire book. A lot of people die along the way – the trail providing all the risks you’ll know from The Oregon Trail game: cholera, childbirth, stampeding buffalo, measles, Native Americans, land and weather conditions – but for some reason, I just had not forged an emotional connection to any of them, so I didn’t even blink.
It felt like the plot had no peaks or valleys. No build up to exciting climaxes. Leah’s magical gift of goldscrying was hardly used, just as a thing she was hiding from other people that occasionally helped find things. She didn’t even meet her uncle again until the very end of the book, for all of like five minutes. There’s no big conflict in this book aside from man vs. nature, and I’m sorry, it turns out that that isn’t enough to enthrall me. I liked some of the nostalgia winks to The Oregon Trail, but I was also growing increasingly more bored. It’s like this whole book is just a set up for the series, but I have no idea what the long run plot is even going to be. In the bad way. It feels kind of pointless.
What I will say is nice is the diversity. Carson includes a lot of characters from different backgrounds, but she doesn’t forget the historical context and inherent prejudices. Leah’s best friend and love interest, Jefferson, is of mixed race decent: half-Native American, half-Caucasian. The company they join to travel west includes families of Southern conservatives, a slave owner and his slave, French-Canadian immigrants, German immigrants, a zealous priest, and “confirmed bachelors” – a charming name for gay men. As such, Carson manages to tackle a lot of topics of racial tensions, gay rights, and feminism, and she does this in authentic-feeling ways with a modern, humanist perspective. If anything, I have the utmost respect for that – and I loved how at the end of the book, the characters that remained managed to become a charming family of misfits. There’s a couple of scenes that made me really proud of them and of Leah.
But that romance? It gave me exactly zero feels. Which is also a weird thing, because it is very clearly a friends-to-something-more kind of romance, which ordinarily would totally be my thing. But you barely see the friendship that had built up for years. It’s further complicated because by the time Leah and Jefferson meet up with the company to travel west, he’s kind of infatuated with another girl. So there’s not much romance either. There are small moments that I suppose should set my shippy heart on fire, but I just shrugged. I think that might have something to do with the fact that (a) Jefferson ran off after a rushed, out-of-the-blue proposal (for convenience) to Leah at the start of the novel, leaving her alone to deal with the deaths of her parents, (b) the fact that after that he seemed infatuated with someone else (which he might be retconning later, because screw you), and (c) the fact that Leah seems to really just see him as a friend until she sees him fawning over Therese. This… is supposed to make me cheer for them? I can see why some might, but I just will not.
Here’s the part where I decide to break up with Rae Carson.
As far as historical fiction (and fantasy) goes, I tend to expect more from the writing. Carson’s writing has always seemed rather simplistic to me, and in Walk on Earth a Stranger, it struck an additional nerve as she frequently and casually threw in modern terms that absolutely would not fit into the time period. That’s jarring to me and pulls me out of the story. Neither do I feel like the magic was explored well enough or described in beautiful, engrossing ways. It was just a thing. Kind of there. In the background. What other kinds of magic exist and how this shapes the world is a complete mystery for now.
But other than that, I think it’s a style issue. I can’t seem to bond with her characters, no matter how hard I try. I’ll never be more than slightly impressed in passing. Her plot-lines do not have enough action for me, and there’s not enough character growth or swoon-worthy romance to make up for it.
I can totally understand why a lot of people swear by this author, but I can’t keep forcing myself to read these books that are never much better than “okay” for me, in a desperate attempt to understand the hype. So for now… Goodbye, Rae Carson. May you have much better luck with other readers.