Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Heartwood Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Freya Robertson
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Elemental Book Wars Book One
Pages: 568

Buy on Amazon!  

(Disclaimer: Heartwood was won in an online contest and was not purchased).

(Personal Note: I just want to say after going to the author’s website and checking out what kind of person she was I have to say Freya Robertson seems like one of the coolest fantasy authors I’ve read about.  That being said, not liking this book, made this one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write.  I respect the effort and time that goes into creating a novel, especially the personal nature of it, however I have to be honest with my reaction to it – which is the point of this site).

Heartwood has a lot of heart, and I’m not trying to be facetious by saying that.  The author, Freya Robertson, advocates for a number of ideas – equal treatment of women, the importance of nature, etc. – that many people should find easy to get behind.  A lot of the characters support or oppose these ideas, which makes them fairly easy to like or hate.

The problem is these meaningful topics lose meaning when the prose and language used to tell Heartwood is not up to par. There may be all these great ideas in this novel, but the way they are presented to the reader makes it nearly impossible to consume the book with any of the passion the author used to write it. In other words, the way Heartwood is told never allows the story to get off the ground.

 In the land of Anguis all of the major leaders gather at Heartwood, a fortified temple that guards the Arbor,  a sacred tree that is responsible for maintaining life in the world.  At the gathering, the tree is attacked by water elementals called Darkwater Lords and they steal the tree’s heart.

It’s up to Chonrad, Lord of Barle, and a handful of other holy knights to set out on a number of quests to rescue the Arbor’s heart and to prevent the Darkwater Lords from taking over the world.

Prose is the single biggest detriment to the Heartwood story.  Consider this example which is a description of the people and history of Komis.
“Komis suffered greatly; with nearly all their men of a certain age dead, the population declined swiftly, and the spread of the Pestilence did not help matters. Crop failure in the west was particularly bad during the cold winters of those years, and many also died from hunger.  The kingdom shattered, and those who were left withdrew into the great forests to find food and shelter.  And there they stayed until the present day, a race of tree-dwellers and guerrilla warriors, as alien to the easterners as a dog underground.”
This is a pretty standard example of the writing in this book, and most of Heartwood reads in a manner similar.  This style of writing doesn’t mesh well with hardships the characters have to go through, nor does it seem to allow the author to speak in a lyrical and meaningful manner.

The first three words of the above example are a big problem – the author is telling the reader what to feel.  Leaving this out would allow most of the readers to come to the conclusion that the people of Komis have suffered with the descriptions that follow.  The book is littered with instances like this – where emotional states of cultures, characters, and other situations are just told to the reader – not allowing them to jump into the world, breathe in the air, and make a lot of these judgments about whether or not a specific instance was happy, sad, painful, exciting, etc. for themselves.

Telling and not showing is really harmful to the story, and it doesn’t stop at descriptions or dialogue, it even intrudes into action sequences.  Here is an example.
“He roared and reared up with his arms and legs, throwing off the peasant, but not before he felt a burning that meant the blade had cut through his skin.”
Again the cause of the burning is explained in a way that just completely took me out of this story.  A burning feeling would probably suggest that the character suffered a significant injury, so telling the readers that the character is injured after implying it, feels redundant.

On the subject of battles, it seems that the book is looking for any excuse for its characters to pull out their swords and point them at something.  Whether it’s the use of a trigger word like pawes – Robertson’s made up derogatory word for women – or a group of bandits or raiders, this story can’t seem to go more than 30 pages without someone pulling out a weapon.

Additional problems can be found with the characters – who to the authors credit have different obstacles and internal conflicts – but all seem to be written with near identical personalities. Specifically, the way each character narrates the story or engages another character in dialogue all feels the same.  Characters also are emotionally inconsistent, and their emotional states tend to switch when it’s convenient for the plot.  An example of this occurs early in the book when one character is disgusted by the ritual animal sacrifice given to the Arbor, and less than fifty pages later that character seems to be in no way effected by the massive violent battle that he took part in.

Other characters seem to act in a manner that is not according to their station.  In the later half of the book, readers meet the supreme bad guy, who’s named Thalassinus.  During a conversation with his son, Thalassinus tells him he can no longer talk … not because he’s busy making invasion plans for conquering the known world, not because he’s training for the upcoming final battle, and not because he has some other hideously evil atrocity to commit … but, he can no longer talk to his son at that moment because he has CHORES. The supreme bad guy, the most evil person in this book with countless minions waiting to do his bidding has to do chores.

The stronger points of Heartwood center around the elementals and world building.  The earth vs water driven plot would make for an interesting fantasy story conflict, but again the prose makes it difficult to remain interesting.  Most of the characters, despite the way they are written, have intriguing character qualities, especially Dolosus, who only has one arm and a complicated heritage.

The world building has some nice touches to it, especially the aspects related to measuring time – 18 hour days, 8 seasons in year, etc. – and the Latin flavored naming used for the religious aspects of the story.

Heartwood is a noble attempt at writing fantasy, but nice touches in world building and the author’s passion can’t overcome the writing style.

Score: 3.6

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