Heartwood an epic fantasy novel that is set for release in October of 2013. The story follows seven divergent groups of warriors as they embark on quests across the fictional land of Anguis. The parties have been sent out after their object of worship, the Arbor, has been attacked and it life force removed.
While the initial premises may strike you as strange the reader is quickly immersed into the various belief systems of the people of Heartwood and the surrounding settlements. Story
At the outset, I want to make it clear that the author, Freya Robertson, is a talented writer. As a debut novel, Heartwood acquits itself well. The writing is clear and the style is easy to follow. The book runs into problems when the story is viewed as whole.
The story is truly epic in scale. Seven groups of people on seven different quests spread across approximately 550 pages. This is a lot of information to squeeze into 172,000 words (thanks goes to the author for letting me know how many words she wrote). But despite the length, the story feels rushed. At times we hears characters complain about the tribulations they have faced on their quest but it feels as if their quest has just begun.
A second issue is the sheer mass of characters. As you can imagine, each quest needs to have a sufficient number of members. We are constantly being introduced to new character and it quickly becomes overwhelming. That said, the reader gradually acclimates and the half way point the cast of characters has stabilized. A simple cast of characters of the beginning of the novel would have been a great reference for the reader.
On the positive side, the author has done a fine job of creating a religious system and religious order. The religious beliefs of the characters are inextricably tied to their actions and interactions with each other. This is by far the most developed aspect of the story and it forms the nucleus book.
As a husband and father of two girls, I always appreciate stories that have strong female characters and project positive images of woman. I was pleased that many of the quest leaders were women. I always tell my daughters that they can be whatever they want. A doctor, an engineer, a mechanic, a nurse or even the Prime Minister. Now I can tell them they can also lead a quest to save the world. All of the major characters in the books. The female characters are no more or less flawed than the male characters and are portrayed as strong and capable.
While the scale of the story is epic, each of the quests are not. While author expertly entwines many different storylines there is simply too little space given to each quest and side story. This book could have easily been expanded into two or three books. Message
I appreciated that the author attempted to instil some sense of morality into her story. While story was a fantasy with imagined people and places, it also draws parallels real life. There are numerous allusions to the Christian iconography, i.e. the cross, and allusions to religious belief systems such as Christianity and Islam. The message of the book is ultimately one of questioning belief. We are told strict adherence to dogma can lead to our destruction as doing so can blind us to the truth around us and leave us unprepared from unrecognized dangers. The message of Heartwood is not necessarily that of traditional epic fantasy. While there are of friendship, love and honor, the seeming attempt at commentary on modern religion will turn some readers off.
Ultimately, I do not buy the message the book is trying to sell me. I believe it perpetrates the stereotype that people who feel strongly about their beliefs are somehow blind to realities. This stereotype is itself dogmatic and condescending. That said, I was not offended in any way. There were no overt attacks on any one belief system but rather an attempt to comment on religions institutions.
While I did not buy into what I felt was the major theme, I was able to become involved with the character and appreciate each of their stories, struggles and victories.
Overall, the series has potential. While Heartwood is an average offering in the fantasy genre, it feels as if the author has the ability to provide an above average offering. Hopefully, the author can better focus the story in the next installment.
There was more than enough in Heartwood to keep me interested to the end. Despite its shortcomings, the story as a whole was interesting and the character developed enough to keep me turning the pages. I will be interested to see what the experience of writing this first novel will bring the second book.