High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy
by: Freya Robertson
Series: Elemental Wars
Heartwood is Freya Robertson’s first fantasy novel, and Angry Robot’s latest publication. The first in a trilogy, Heartwood is an epic high fantasy with the flavor of Arthurian myth. When offered a review copy of the book, I eagerly snatched it up. Not only was it in one of my favorite sub-genres, but it was from a young press with a reputation for high quality books that push the boundaries of speculative fiction.
Chonrad, Lord of Barle, comes to the fortified temple of Heartwood for the Congressus peace talks, which Heartwood’s holy knights have called in an attempt to stave off war in Anguis. But the Arbor, Heartwood’s holy tree, is failing, and because the land and its people are one, it is imperative the nations try to make peace. After the Veriditas, or annual Greening Ceremony, the Congressus takes place. The talks do not go well and tempers are rising when an army of warriors emerges from the river. After a fierce battle, the Heartwood knights discover that the water warriors have stolen the Arbor’s heart. For the first time in history, its leaves begin to fall... The knights divide into seven groups and begin an epic quest to retrieve the Arbor, and save the land.
While this is Freya Robertson’s first fantasy novel, this is not her first published work. A lot of mechanical writing issues that I find with debut novelists are missing here, and while that may not count for much with a lot of readers, it earns one a lot of brownie points with me. Her descriptions are well put together, and the dialogue is tight and to the point. There is nothing in the book that does not serve a purpose to the plot. Her writing is tight and very streamlined with no extra fluff.
If you know where to look, you can see a lot of influences of the High Middle Ages on Heartwood in some unexpected places. The world of Anguis is suffering a period of extreme violence, particularly between two of its four nations. The knights of the holy city of Heartwood are attempting to enforce peace, with increasingly poor results. Famine has become an issue for the first time in hundreds of years, further adding strain to the relationship between the most warlike nation and Heartwood. How the quests are set out is very reminiscent of early Arthurian myth and other literature from the High Middle Ages. Once we get to see more of Anguis than just Heartwood, you can see a lot of influences from daily life in Medieval Europe. I really appreciated Robertson’s efforts to make Heartwood feel very grounded on multiple levels. Even the sacred language of Heartwood has its basis in our world, though I did find it slightly strange to have Latin as the base language for a religion centered around the worship of a tree.
One major change to High Middle Ages culture, which made me happy, is the presence of a number of female knights in the Heartwood community. Now, these are not normal everyday women by any means. Female knights only happen within Heartwood (as far as was presented in the book), which does not recognize differences between genders other than biology. These women have been trained to a high martial standard since they joined the religious community, usually at the age of seven. Lay women in the four nations tend to have a very different life experience, from complete subjugation by men to fairly equal standing with men depending on which nation they live in. Each of the characters in the book react differently to the female knights, which lends a welcome complexity to the roles of the female knights involved in the quests.
However, this book did have a major downfall for me. It features not one point of view character, not just a handful, but an incredible eight (and I may be forgetting a few who only get point of view once or twice in the novel). That’s a lot of characters, and each is a protagonist in their own way. Granted, the novel is over five hundred pages long. But that still means that on average, each protagonist gets sixty-odd pages of face time with the reader. And that face time isn’t split evenly, so most point-of-view characters get less time than that. For those of you keeping score, that means that each of the separate seven quests, when pulled out of the overall novel, are between the lengths of a novelette and a novella. That’s very little time for each quest to have its own plot development, or for characters to change and grow. Having this many points of view is ambitious, as is trying to fit this much plot into one book. As a result, I ultimately feel that Heartwood doesn’t have enough time to cover all of the ground it needs to in an effective manner. And yes, that’s with a book that clocks in at over five hundred pages. Remember what I said earlier about no fluff? When looking at plot and character development, we’re at a skin-and-bones level. Things are accomplished, but sometimes just barely. This also lends to my impression of a modern work aping the literature of the Middle Ages. Early Arthurian Myth and works like The Lais of Marie de France are all short stories. Here we have at best novellas which are interwoven together rather than read separately.
In the end, I’d recommend this book for those who like high fantasy. Fans of Michael J. Sullivan’s Ryria Revelations, C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, or Neil Gaiman’s Stardust will find something to like here. If you’re a fan of more character-driven works (such as those by Brent Weeks, Sherwood Smith, Sharon Shinn, and others), you may not find this to your liking.
If you want to check out the free excerpt of Heartwood, you can find it here!
A review copy of this title was provided to the reviewer by Angry Robot Books.