Freya Robertson creates an intricate world in Heartwood, the first installment of the new Elemental Wars series. Fantasy concepts are throughout while Robertson creates a fully realized religion and culture. With not one, but several quests at the core, adventure and journey are by far the driving force. Robertson takes readers on her journey with conviction.
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.
There are many unfortunate aspects to Heartwood, which are all the more unfortunate because the concept is strong. A culture has a religion wherein they worship a tree, they are attacked and the very thing they worship is broken. In the midst, they find a tome which turns their religious beliefs on its head and sends bands of soldiers to complete various Quests for the betterment of the world. Doesn’t that sound like a great book? That’s what I thought. However, I was swiftly proven wrong.
One of my biggest grievances with Robertson’s writing is her multitude of characters. I am all for an ensemble cast but Robertson takes this many steps past acceptable and further past ideal. In whole, there are seven quests all with their own contingency of knights in addition to their enemies and people who stay in the enclave of Heartwood. Now, I understand the desire to make a world feel realistic. Adding characters is simply not the way you should do it. I wouldn’t have minded so much if characters were spoken of in passing. However, Robertson chose to give descriptions of everything from physical appearance to marital status for each character. Not only was this an overwhelming amount of unnecessary information, but it only served to hamper the progress of plot. In fact at one point, Robertson spent so much time introducing new characters and expanding on minor characters that I had not realized one of the main quests was completed. This expansion effectively pushed readers away from what they cared about to the banal.
Robertson’s pace is a bit slow at times, but it is hard to tell due to her lack of focus. Not only does she insist on an extraordinarily large cast, but she also consistently changes point of view too often. This complaint is fairly minor comparatively such as the annoying amount of book specific lingo upfront and the total lack of world establishment in the beginning. The slightly more frustrating lack of setting clarity is also something I might have forgiven had other aspects been better. In fact, Robertson’s setting building and lack of focus was so evident that I didn’t realize the tree which is worshipped is actually in a building until nearly the end of Heartwood.
While there are many things I don’t like about Heartwood, there were occasional highlights. Action scenes were well written and put readers right into the midst. Concept is where Robertson truly succeeds. There were hidden gems such as the civilization which were a mix of water elemental and merpeople and a beautifully ethereal and supernatural connection between twins. Despite these aspects, Heartwood was by the end, nearly unbearable for me to continue reading.
What made Heartwood absolutely frustrating was, to speak with candor, the air of sexism throughout. While the religious sect of Heartwood has paladinesque warriors of both genders, Robertson highlights ideals which cloud the narrative. This makes for a book which preaches to its readers rather than tell a story. I am not sure whether this was the authors intention but it was certainly what came through. The prime examples of this *potential spoiler ahead* was the emphasis on a woman’s place to bear children. Robertson not only had one character be haunted by the supposed ghost of a fetus she aborted but insisted that at the end, her female characters were all decidedly pregnant. Now, my issue is not in the story for many people feel guilt in their actions and as history reflects, there is often a boom of children around wartime. I do however take issue with the way this story was presented. It lacked any counterpoint or reference, this was not simply the belief of the society or the religion but the recurring theme throughout Heartwood. This upsets me so greatly because I find it so unrealistic. Robertson presents an ending where out of her dozens of female characters, most of which are lifelong warriors, each one either ends up dead or has a family. The lone female who didn’t choose either option had no formal ending and therefore cannot be counted in either column. This mentality of everyone ending up pregnant and living happily ever after was especially obvious since Robertson set Heartwood up to be the beginning of a series. Can we as readers really believe that not a single female warrior chose to continue protecting the sacred tree she has been guarding her whole life? Are we expected to think that no female chose to be a politician without a family ( a clause set by Robertson in one lands culture)? If women are equal to men in Robertson’s world, why are they only given the choice of motherhood as an option?
Heartwood is a book full of conviction and adventure. With many pitfalls, large and small Robertson hits her stride in the second portion of the novel. However, pushing ideals aside, the lack of focus in storytelling made for a difficult read that truly wasn’t worth it. I am sure there is an audience out there for Heartwood, but it certainly wasn’t me. I believe that with some guidance and clarity, Robertson may be an author I may one day return to read. Until then, I will leave it for those who choose that cross to bear.