Heartwood, by Freya Robertson

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 29, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) A dying tree, a desperate quest, a love story, a last stand.

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.

Thoughts: I wish I could say that I enjoyed this book more than I did. It had the potential to be something that was, if not revolutionary, at least something very good and something worth talking about in the fantasy genre. Instead, it largely fell flat, was formulaic and stiff, with very distanced narration that kept me separate from even the intense action scenes.

The world that Robertson creates is an interesting one, with many familiar elements pulled from British landmarks and mythology creating a kind of pastoral fantasy world that has a more centralized feel than many of the world-spanning fantasies out there. The central religion is that of Animus, and a part of that divinity is made manifest in the Arbor, a giant oak tree that the religious/military city of Heartwood is built around. But the Arbor has been slowly dying, crops have been failing, and the land’s people aren’t always capable of agreeing on what should be done. An unexpected attack by water elementals forces everyone’s hands and people of all lands must band together to embark upon quests to activate dormant focus sites around their countries, to revitalize the Arbor and stave off the coming war between humanity and the water elementals.

This book had all the earmarks of a slow but satisfying return to mythology-based fantasy tales, something often lost in the crush to come out with brand new completely original concepts. Sometimes what we crave in our reading material is a bit of nostalgic fare, and I thought that Heartwood was poised to be just that.

Unfortunately, instead of being merely slow, the pace was plodding. Characters were flat and devoid of emotion, and even though over half the cast dies by the end, I couldn’t really bring myself to care about them, with a mere one exception. Battles are going on, swords are being slung, flesh getting stabbed and sliced, and the writing style and pacing is exactly the same as when a scholar is explaining a previously-unknown bit of history, or when a group of characters were engaged in a barely-lukewarm political discussion. For a book with so much potential for passion of all kinds, it was remarkably devoid of it.

The amount of suspension of disbelief required was pretty high, too, which only added to the feel of distance. After the water elemental attack, a book is found that essentially turns their religion on its head, explains how the founder of it completely misunderstood previous oral traditions upon which he based the religion, and characters find out that the very nature of the world doesn’t function the way they’d assumed. A couple of people raised minor, “But how could that be?” objections, but this huge revelation is accepted by multiple diverse groups of people within a few paragraphs with little more fanfare than, “I guess nothing else explains what just happened.” Come on, people now end up breaking off into different denominations of Christianity based on whether they interpret a passage of the bible as meaning that Jesus drank wine or drank grape juice. The revelation in Heartwood was akin to someone finding a book here that claims Jesus said that Satan was God’s long-lost brother, they formed the universe together, and everyone’s been getting it wrong ever since and that’s why climate change is happening. You don’t greet that with a shrug and a proclamation of, “Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” I had to suspend my disbelief over every character essentially suspending their belief, and that never bodes well.

The book does get points for creating the military ideology of the Heartwood knights, who hold that males and females are equally able of standing up and being defenders of the faith, both spiritually and in battle. As such, multiple characters on the various quests are female knights, no less capable than their male counterparts. Rape did occur within the book’s pages, not as a half-assed form of character development, but as brutality and part of torture. Robertson broke the mold with this treatment, and even with all the rest of the book’s problems, it deserves praise for that.

Ultimately I have to say that I was disappointed by this book. It may seem a bit unfair to judge a book by what it wasn’t rather than what it was, but a good deal of my disappointment comes from the fact that I felt this book could have been so much more than what it was. It was a great idea and had good world-building that didn’t pay off in the end. Mostly it was the unemotional writing style that ruined it for me. I can forgive other things, but if I can’t connect to the characters nor feel any urgency when there’s a quest to save the world, even the positive parts of a book can’t salvage it for me. Sadly, not a book I feel comfortable in recommending.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

12 comments on “Heartwood, by Freya Robertson

  1. Agree one hundred percent, especially about the suspension of disbelief. I knew the book was going to have to overcome so rough bumps when the long lost books were hidden by a large chest covering a staircase.

    It’s a shame, I really was hoping this would be a good one.

    • Yeah, that did seem a bit odd, didn’t it? The kind of thing that one might overlook if it was part of a tabletop role-playing session, but not something that stands up to much scrutiny. Did people never clean or re-arrange things in that room over the centuries?

      • But it was a big and heavy chest …. ;) Actually, what really got me was the ending. I knew as all the couples paired up so happily and conveniently, the one guy would be reunited with his long lost limb. Golly gee, how sweet. Can you imagine if Abercrombie introduced that magic to his books? Logan would need a new nickname. The romance part of it annoyed me as well. I had real issues with her thinking her “lover” (aka one night stand) killed her partner and then worrying if her “lover” was hurt while he was murdering someone she grew up with. Seriously?? (Sorry, its been long enough having trouble remember character names)

  2. Completely understand your point about being disappointed by what it wasn’t rather than what it was. My expectations of the books were quite a bit different than what it delivered and it’s hard to not let that influence my reaction. Plus, as you said, the foundations of the story had potential. I just couldn’t cope with the writing style. So much telling rather than showing, constant explanations of motives and emotions. And yes, some serious suspension of disbelief required. I felt extremely detached because of it and it’s hard to care about a story or it’s characters when you feel that way. By the end I just had to roll my eyes. But felt guilty doing it because I had really hoped for something different than what I got.

    • It’s always a shame when that happens, when a book doesn’t live up to expectations.

      I think the characters I felt for the most were Gavius and Gravis, because they seemed to have some meat behind their characters and development in how they related to each other and the rest of the world. But 2 characters out of a cast of what, over a dozen? Most of whom end up dead by the end, some of then only a handful of pages after they get named for the first time. :/

    • Showing rather than telling? I recall one scene where it was explained where they had acquired the hay for their horses. I was told what was packed in travel bags. Its just so much.

      And add me too the group that finished mostly from stubbornes.

  3. I have to agree with pretty much all of that, though I ended up not being able to finish the book. The narration and ‘suspense of belief’ that you talk about are the biggest reasons why. I do think the premise was an interesting one, but it just didn’t grab hold of me enough to help me see it through to the end.

    • If I were less stubborn, I probably wouldn’t have finish it either. Especially when it comes to review copies, I feel the need to push on to the end no matter how much trouble I’m having with the book. Slows down my reading and I don’t enjoy myself when I’m doing so, but it just feels wrong somehow to leave a book unread like that.

  4. Pingback: November in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

  5. I agree with this review. The characters were flat for sure. The prose and the way and it was told though made it impossible for me to get into the story. The world building had potential, but everything else about the story struggled … a lot.

    • It’s a shame, really, because this story had plenty of potential, I think, but all the tropes and the flat characterizations really just put me off. Many other people seemed to like the book, though, so it may be just a matter of personal taste rather than objective critique.

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