Review of Heartwood – Book 1 of The Elemental Wars by Freya Robertson

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I seem to be reading a slew of epic Fantasy at the moment. Though it’s not my favourite genre, there seems to be a number of well written, enjoyable tales that have me zipping through the hefty tomes at a fair old clip because I want to know what’s going to happen. And this is another…

HeartwoodA dying tree, a desperate quest, a love story, a last stand. Chronrad, 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. As the leaves begin to fall the knights divide into seven groups and begin an epic quest to track down the elements needed to revive the ailing tree and save the land from a ferocious new threat.

That is a potted version of the rather chatty blurb. And while Heartwood definitely epic Fantasy, it is also High Fantasy. The sense of the quest being holy and the knights feeling their calling has to be prioritised over their everyday lives and concerns is a strong theme that powers much of the narrative throughout this adventure. For me, it is this aspect of the book that makes it stand out from the rest. Because while they are also battling uniquely foul weather, dreadful roads, a fraying society while travelling on horseback, this sense of having to live by a code of beliefs and values that sets the chosen apart means that when the going gets tough, more than a handful of the characters are battling themselves.

I really enjoyed the character arcs of the twins Gavius and Gravis, who initially appear to be constantly together and uniquely bonded – a regular staple of Fantasy fiction. But as circumstances becomes more dire and they are separated, it becomes clear there are deep-seated resentments that challenge their relationship far more sorely than the constant rain and nasty warriors threatening to overrun civilisation. Can they prevail? And what will happen if they do? It is this dynamic that caught and held my interest every bit as much as the overarching threat to the sacred tree and the land.

For one of the main conventions of High Fantasy is that the quest will transform all those who undertake them – often costing lives. And that was the other pageturner for me. Not everyone comes back from this quest. A couple of early deaths had me sharply aware that Robertson isn’t afraid of culling her character cast. So who would make it – and who wouldn’t?

I also enjoyed the fact that as well as questioning their own abilities – not everyone on the quest is totally convinced about the sacred tree. Chronrad, though a brave and skilful fighter, isn’t one of the holy knights and frankly finds all the elaborate religious ritual and the tree itself offputting. He wasn’t the only one. That tree is creepy. And not necessarily in a good way… The elemental magic vital to keep it alive is not remotely cosy.

Having set up this wide-ranging, urgent quest of utmost importance, the trick then is to bring the seven bands some conclusion. Does Robertson manage to tie up these various plotlines satisfactorily to a satisfying climax? It’s a big ask when the storyline has sprawled to this extent, particularly when considering Robertson is a debut author. Oh yes. There is the major battle, along with some unexpected twists that I very much liked. And those twins? You’ll have to read the book to find out. Have a go – if you enjoy your Fantasy with more than a touch of Arthurian influence – this is a must-read.
8/10

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