BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A society of knights dedicated to protect a Yggdrasil like tree quest across the land in order to save it and oppose enemies known and unknown.
PROS: Excellent misc-en-scene and detail; egalitarian society at heart of novel most welcome.
CONS: Several coincidences and turns of plot are awfully convenient; some character arcs feel like missed opportunities; a repeated typographical error was more than a little annoying.
BOTTOM LINE: An imperfect but entertaining start to a new epic fantasy writer.
A tree at the center of creation, an egalitarian set of knights set to protect it, and a ghastly attack that threatens the health of the world are the stakes in Heartwood, a debut epic fantasy novel from Freya Robertson.
In the midst of an attempt at brokering peace between two neighboring and perpetually feuding countries, the titular Heartwood and its knights and staff find themselves on the front line of conflict themselves, as a hitherto unknown enemy, water elementals from the ocean, reave Heartwood. Not only is the carnage and damage considerable, but the living heart of the Arbor, the Yggdrasil-like tree that has an Arthurian connection to the land, has been hacked out and stolen by these raiders. Without that heart, not only will the tree die, but, so too will the entire land on which it depends. Coincidentally, a revelation about the already-ailing health of the surrounding lands reveals the need for worthies to heal the land, even as an attempt to find the enemy and recover the Pectoris, the heart, of the Arbor is made. Heartwood knights as well as emissaries from neighboring lands are thus set out on that most classic of plot structures: the quest.
Within the quest structure of the novel, readers are introduces to characters and more of the world beyond the walls of Heartwood itself. We get a diverse set of leaders of the various expedition drawn from all parts of her world. The nature of the quest do seem to coincidentally illuminate the back stories of each of the characters. However, this did provide a way to flesh out the leads of each of the quest groups without even more stilted and coincidental dialogue or internal thought. None of the characters survive without trial, and more than one is profoundly changed by their experiences, as a good Arthurian quest should do.
Duty, honor, loyalty, the conflict between family, country and belief, and even climate change gets play in Robertson’s novel in the wake of these quests and stories. In most cases, the answers are not simple. And aside from the main conflict and a strong case against sexism, the questions are often left open ended for the characters and the reader alike.
It was certainly refreshing to see not only a diverse set of protagonists, but roles for those protagonists that — in the case of those of Heartwood — that had equal weight and standing. The novel avoids a lot of potential pitfalls and objections that might be made under such an arrangement, and instead shows us what a gender-neutral set of knights and questers might be like. When one of the female quest leaders, Beata, severely doubts her abilities during an arduous portion of her own quest, it is because of her own personal failings, and not because she’s the “weaker sex” that she feels the weight and responsibility pressing on her. On the other hand, the non-egalitarian nature of much of the world beyond Heartwood is laid bare.
A few things annoyed me. Most frustratingly, they were mainly at a textual level. I’m not entirely convinced that the use of Latin works quite as well as one might hope. Naming various organizations and political structures with Latin name is well and good, however calling the stolen part of the tree the “Pectoris” (Latin for heart) seems a bit of unnecessary obfuscation on the part of the writer. The novel also uses the word quest in its capitalized form, consistently. However, the proofreading of the novel did not catch that even words with the letters “quest” have the q capitalized. The book is full of Questions and reQuests, and it made the book feel less professional for it.
Heartwood is not completely successful in all of its aims and goals, but I give it credit for trying. There are too few writers of either gender willing to write fantasy books with female protagonists or characters without falling on a lot of tired tropes, or just writing women in roles of power in general. Happily, we can add Freya Robertson and Heartwood to this list.