Heartwood by Freya Robertson is the first book in the epic fantasy series Elemental Wars. The story is filled to overflowing with massive world building, loads of characters, diverse races/species and many different viewpoints. To say it is "epic" is almost an understatement of just how "massive" this world is, and while I usually adore these types of books, this one did not catch my attention. Stick around, and I will try to explain why.
The story itself begins with representatives from all over the land coming together for a summit at the fortress temple of the Heartwood, where they hope to find a solution to the ills spreading across the world. For the land is slowly dying. None can deny it anymore. Food and game has become scarce. The weather has begun to change for the worse. And as the world becomes harsher, the hearts of its people grow cold; their every disagreement turning into violent bickering and strife. The only way to stop the rising tide of destruction is for some way to be found to heal the "Arbor."
The Arbor itself is an ancient oak tree; a tree best characterized as the linchpin of the entire world. Its gentle magic nourishing and upholding all that is good and right, making the land itself a place inhabitable by the people. Yet now, some unknown ailment has afflicted the Arbor, and it is shrinking - dying most likely. If a cure for it cannot be found, the wise know that the lands will fall into chaos and death. Life itself may very well perish! And so the holy knights of all the lands come together for a great summit to avert disaster.
Good setup for an epic fantasy, don’t you thing?
I did too. Unfortunately, things start to go somewhat down hill after this.
The chapters regarding this great council read much like E television’s red carpet coverage of the Oscars. We get to meet each participant as they walk down the carpet and get their own five minutes in the spotlight. In fact, Ms. Robertson inundates a reader with information about these different people. Much of it useless - at least in this book. We get a history lesson on what land they hail from, a description of their land’s own unique religious beliefs, and a brief synopsis of why this guy/gal is important to what is about to happen. Then they walk on into Heartwood, and we do it all over again with the next person in line. Honestly, after a few pages, it gets tedious at best.
Once the pre-show coverage is over, the council turns out to be a big letdown — much like the Oscars. It quickly turns into a bickering session that even more quickly morphs into an excuse for everyone who hates each other to get into a fight. However, before our heroes can bloody their swords upon each other, the mysterious villains in the story attack, emerging from the river to cast themselves upon the hero filled fortress of the Arbor. A decision that seems foolhardy at best, since Heartwood has the lands mightiest heroes protecting it right at this very moment.
Correct me if I’m wrong here, but wouldn’t an enemy attack a target when it is least defended by the most incompetent people?
Anyway, after the watery enemies are cast back and the battle won, the survivors discover that something awful has happened while they fought: the leaves have begun falling off the Arbor!
When the holy knights pull their thumbs out of their mouths and unwind themselves from a fetal position, they discover that the "heart" of the Arbor is missing. Immediately, horrendous "rains" begin to fall over the lands, and now the wise prophesize (drum roll please) that all hell is about to let loose.
But do not fear! There is a way everyone can save the lands’ posterior from this cataclysmic disaster.
Epic quest alert! Epic quest alert! Epic quest alert!Epic quest alert!
Seven of them to be exact. Seven magical nodes that must be reactivated by seven, unique quest parties. Each group having to do different things to reactivate their own particular node. And if these seven quests can be complete, then the wise believe the Arbor shall be healed!
At this point, I really wanted to close the book on Heartwood, because it was using far too many fantasy cliches to interest me, but I didn’t. I kept going, and to be fair, the remainder of the story is an okay read. The characters are fairly interesting, not standard fantasy types but more realistic with many interesting female knights among the groups. There are multiple character viewpoints and ample world building, because you have seven different groups galloping across the lands. The magic of the world, including the Arbor and the elements, is well developed and intriguing. And the final battle at the end was a satisfying conclusion to a first book in a series.
With all that being said however, I did have some things that detracted from my enjoyment of this novel. I’m sure you are sitting on the edge of your seat to read them.
1) I had trouble keeping all the characters straight in my mind, because the story line skipped from quest group to quest group, and I found myself forgetting what one group was doing by the time the story got back around to them. Perhaps I should have kept notes as I read, but unfortunately, I wasn’t forewarned that I needed to do that.
2) The story was just slow. Plodding almost. Part of this was due to the extensive time Ms. Robertson spent world building, but a lot of the blame also goes to the seven quest groups, which meant lots of repetitive talk of each group riding hard, finding an inn, sleeping, et cetera.
3) Too much dying, torturing, raping and general violence. Yeah, I said that. I know it sounds absolutely ridiculous for me to complain about that in an epic fantasy, but honestly, there is a point at which I just don’t care emotionally when someone else gets tortured, violated or killed. It becomes something like "Oh, John got killed. That is sad. Who was John again? Was he the one I didn’t like? Or was that James? Oh well, at least, I have one less character to keep up with now. And Percephalie, didn’t she get tortured earlier in the book? No. Damn, that must have been Andromache." That might sound harsh, but unfortunately, after half the cast gets tortured or dies, I just don’t care anymore.
Those that know me or read my reviews understand by now that I tend to write more "negative" reviews on books I find disappointing. The simple truth is those novels which I am "disappointed" in are those that I was very excited to read and desperately wanted to love. Heartwood is one of those novels. It sounded like just my kind of series, but for some reason, it and I did not connect. Be that as it may, I’d still encourage other fantasy lovers to give it a try, because it might be exactly what you are looking for.
Netgalley provided this book to me for free in return for an honest review. The review above was not paid for or influenced in any way by any person, entity or organization, but is my own personal opinions.