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Milo, aka “Bane of Kings”, reviews the first novel in the Elemental Wars series by Freya Robertson, entitled Heartwood. The epic fantasy novel is published by Angry Robot Books. Its sequel, Sunstone – hits 25th March 2014 in the USA and in the UK on April 3rd.
“Whilst not living up to its full potential, Heartwood is nonetheless a solid book. However its biggest strength is also its greatest weakness, as the first novel in the Elemental Wars is all about worldbuilding and as a result everything else suffers.” ~Bane of Kings, The Founding Fields
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.
I’ve read lots of Angry Robot novels now and it’s rare that you’ll get to see a miss from them. I think I’ve enjoyed pretty much every novel from the publisher that I’ve read aside from maybe one or two that haven’t stayed long enough in my memory. Where does Heartwood come into this though? Does it fall into the hit category or the miss category? It certainly sounds like an interesting read, after all – who doesn’t love a bit of knights in shining armour fantasy every now and again? As it turns out though, Heartwood is difficult to place in either category. I’m going to say that in parts, Freya Robertson’s first Angry Robots book novel is amazing, but in other parts – it doesn’t quite hit the mark. I’ll discuss the positive parts of the book first, however.
The biggest strength of Heartwood is its vivid attention to world building. The world that the characters inhabit is fully fleshed out and fully detailed over the course of the novel, and the reader gets to learn about several things, certainly more so than your average fantasy novel. The first seventy pages or so are pretty much devoted to fleshing out the world before the plot actually kicks into gear, but it’s at this point you have to stop and ask yourself – when is there too much worldbuilding? Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? The answer in Heartwood’s case of course is a resounding yes, because although I liked the fleshing out of the world, the rest of the novel fails to meet the standards that Robertson has set herself with her strong world building and detail. This as a result has made more than one reader that I know not get through the book, but I was able to keep going anyway. It’s almost possible that Heartwood was just not the right sort of book for me despite the appealing aspect that fantasy brings to the table – and I’m sure that there are people who will and have enjoyed this novel more than I will.
To give you a detail of the extensive attention that Robertson has paid to the world building, let’s look at the countries that the world is divided into. Each have their own unique culture and features that are in some ways, less subtle than others. For example there’s one country, the inhabitants of Wulfengar are essentially evil. They’re all generalised under one banner – all women must serve the more dominant men etc and whilst stereotyping sometimes does help the reader get a better picture of what’s going on not all of it is done, and for the most part the world building may be good, and as mentioned before, it’s one of the novel’s saving graces – it’s just places like this where it doesn’t always hit the mark. Positive angles of the world development include elemental magic, with the purpose of knights being designed to protect a holy tree that holds the world together. There are several parts where the action scenes throughout the novel are quite good as a result, but there’s never really anything that really elevates this novel from a decent read to a spectacular one.
Of course, with magic – you always have to be wary of deus ex machina, and that is something that in parts, Heartwood suffers from. It’s used as way of speeding up resolutions and doesn’t always work, robbing the story of perhaps would it could have been if magic hadn’t played a good role. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good magic system in the veins of Brandon Sanderson, who always pays careful and deep concentration to them – but it doesn’t really work when the magic is used to wrap up elements of the plot as smoothly as it does here. And then there’s another problem that the book suffers from – the characters. They weren’t really engaging and captivating and I never felt compelled to root for any of them with the same support that I’ve rooted for other, more realised characters in the past. I finished the book recently and none of the characters created any lasting impression on me as a reader, which is a real shame considering some characters who are so well rounded that I never once forget their names.
There is still an audience for this book, however – despite its many flaws. I think another achievement of Heartwood that despite the fact that there’s more flaws than positive elements that I’ve listed above, it still remains a fairly strong read despite this. Whilst it’s nothing too special or even good, it’d be undeserving to label Heartwood as a bad book. I’ve read bad books before (Dan Brown’s Inferno and Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire) and Heartwood certainly doesn’t fall anywhere near those standards. It’s probably just not my cup of tea – even if I did enjoy parts of the world building and some elements of the storyline. And I’ll admit that I am interested in picking up the second book when I can as well – hopefully now that the worldbuilding is out of the way Robertson can improve on this book’s failings and create a better second act. Therefore it comes with a very cautious recommendation.