Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Book Review: Heartwood by Freya Robertson

Heartwood by Freya Robertson

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Elemental Wars

Publisher: Angry Robot

Date of Publication: October 29, 2013

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Mogsy's Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars - "An ambitious novel that takes some time to build up, yet ultimately an impressive feat of storytelling featuring rich world-building and a story on an epically massive scale"

Featuring exotic lands, magic and adventure and warrior knights embarking on sacred quests, Heartwood had everything I like going for it. Now that I've finished this book, I'm still amazed at the sheer scope of the story; epic doesn't even begin to describe it. Though as I soon found, "epicness" could also be something of a double-edged sword.

The book opens with a scene at the Congressus, a conference of peace talks in which representatives from all across Anguis come together in an attempt to negotiate and maintain stability between the many nations. Chonrad, Lord of Barle, joins the holy knights of Heartwood to oversee the talks in the fortified temple, where the great tree called the Arbor stands. Congressus does not go well, however, and then the gathering is ambushed by an army of warriors who seem to have materialized from the water of the river itself. In the ensuing battle many are killed, but it is the Arbor with its massive trunk split and its heart stolen away that is the worst blow of all.

Because the great tree is what binds the land and all its people, it must be saved. First, the Arbor's heart must be retrieved, but five Nodes located in five different hallowed sites across the land must also be activated in order for the tree to heal. In addition, a powerful magician called the Virimage must also be found, brought back to Heartwood so he can lend his abilities to the mending. Thus it begins; we have seven different groups, each on their own journey, each tasked with a special Quest.

Like I said, the scope of this is massive. It's what I loved best about this book, and the author Freya Robertson pulls off an impressive feat of storytelling by weaving no less than six or seven different plot threads together into a one big whole. She's also done incredible things with world building, creating this land made up of many different nations, all with their own unique population and cultures. The characters featured in this book all have ties to their own homes and histories, which also reflects in their personalities, motivations and value systems. I liked this last point a lot too, reminding me very much of the worlds in the role-playing games I like to play.

Viewed as a whole, however, the massiveness of Heartwood -- both its length and scale of the story -- can also make things a little problematic for the reader. When you have so much going on, such as half a dozen quests occurring all at once, that's a lot to take in. First, we have the introduction to the characters, of which there are many, and that shouldn't be a surprise given the intricacies of the plot. Still, I like to see momentum build in the first quarter of a book, because that's generally when I expect to be pulled in by the story as well. In Heartwood, much of the first 100-200 pages is given to establishing the characters and world, which made for a slower-paced beginning. It felt sometimes like I was encountering a new character and his or her long and detailed back-story every few pages, when what I wanted very much was for the story to move forward. Structurally, I think if some of the information could have been edited out or even just spread out more evenly, it might have improved the flow for the first part of the book.

These insertions of character history and moments of information dumping persist throughout the novel, but I think they are the heaviest in the first half. The good news is, I think the story picks up considerably in the second half, after we have the all the introductions and necessary details established. Though a little patience and determination was required of me to reach this point, I have to say it was worth it in the end. I'm still astounded by the way Freya Robertson was able to make all her quest stories come together. She manages to keep all the threads in line, never once letting any of them get away from her, and keeps up a steady level of suspense for each group throughout. With all the perspective changes and jumping around in places and time, I would have expected this book to be way more disjointed than it is, but surprisingly it wasn't, at least not for me.

I didn't get to connect to all the characters equally, since one of the downsides of this format is having to spread my attention between a whole bunch of different players. And some like Chonrad, for example, disappear for a chunk of time after Part I as the book shifts focus to the people on other quests. But over time, I did develop a few favorites. The writing is admittedly not very subtle when it comes to revealing their every thought or emotion, but regardless I came to enjoy Heartwood's female characters a lot. Their depth made them memorable, and the holy knights Procella and Beata stood out for me in particular. Both are strong leaders who are capable and competent, and yet also have their own personal battles between duty and love, what's insides their heads versus what's inside their hearts. On that note, I also want to say how much I appreciate a little romance in my epic fantasy. There's definitely an element of love here, and Freya Robertson is so good at creating passion and sexual tension between couples. I was not surprised when I found out that she has also published a number of romance novels under a different name.

Ultimately, my overall feelings towards Heartwood are positive, though it did take a little time for me to get into the flow of the story. It is, after all, an ambitious novel, and despite a few hitches in its structure and pacing, for a first book in a series I think this one does an admirable job in establishing the world and characters. The way the story unfolded and came together in the end made me curious enough to want to read more from this series and author, and I'll most likely be picking up the next book.

3.5 of 5 stars

A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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