Tag Archives: high fantasy

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

Review of The Golden Hills of Westria – Book 8 of the Westria novels by Diane L. Paxson

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I’ll be honest – a lot of high fantasy doesn’t do it for me. But I was intrigued by the premise that Westria is California many years in the future after some terrible disaster ripped through the land. This Cataclysm has forever altered the people and their relationship with their environment, as it awoke the spiritual entities guarding the land, forcing them to take a more active role in events.

Prince Phoenix was always a bit restless, never quite measuring up to the expectations of his heroic father, King Julian, who is goldenhillsofmagically attuned to the four powerful jewels of Westria. After being sent away in disgrace for his part in a stupid prank that went tragically wrong, Phoenix is snatched by a band of slavers.

Meantime there are increasingly troubling reports of a fanatical sect emerging, led by a charismatic leader, Mother Mahaliel. They are on the march, apparently seeking a place where they can settle and worship in peace.  Lux, childhood companion of Phoenix with a strong magical talent, is torn between the need to control her powers and her wish to be of some service to Westria during this time of increasing crisis. However, as events take a critical turn, Lux finds herself unexpectedly right in the middle of one of the greatest and most critical times in Westria’s history since the Cataclysm…

Told in third person multiple viewpoint, the story clips along at a good pace and I quickly became engrossed in the characters. For me, one of the abiding problems I tend to have with this story structure, is that there is generally one story arc I far prefer to the other sub-plots, so tend to skim through them to get to my favourite. However, Paxson’s deft handling of the different protagonists meant that wasn’t a particular issue, as her control of the narrative pace, and building of the action to the climax was skilfully executed.

Paxson’s previous Westria novel was published in 1992, so this book which was released in 2006, is very much revisiting a blast from the past. In her Afterword, Paxson mentioned that with the current upsurge of religious extremism, she felt it would be an interesting theme to examine within this particular world, and it certainly worked well. Despite the fact that this is the eighth novel in the series, it wasn’t a particular problem because of a jump in the timeline and while Paxson alludes to previous happenings from time to time, I didn’t find it particularly irksome or felt that my reading experience was compromised by not having read earlier books. Which makes a pleasant change, in these days when ‘The Story So Far’ prologues have fallen out of favour…

Fans of high fantasy won’t be rocked or wrong-footed by the themes running through this book. These include the struggle for moral certitude in a time of building crisis; the epic nature of the battle between good and evil – which in this case certainly starts as more nuanced than is usual in this genre; and the sense of fulfilling a destiny that initially overwhelms the character. In Phoenix’s case, he finds refuge in an interesting survival trait that Paxson uses in her heroic depiction of the spirituality that permeates the relationship between the land and its inhabitants.

Overall, I found this a well-executed, highly readable book with some original and pleasing touches that distinguish it as novel that not only entertains, but also provides food for thought.
8/10

Review of the Crown of Stars series by Kate Elliott featuring:

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Volume One – King’s Dragon
Volume Two – Prince of Dogs
Volume Three – The Burning Stone
Volume Four – Child of Flame
Volume Five – Gathering Storm
Volume Six – In the Ruins
Volume Seven – Crown of Stars

crownofdragonsThe word ‘epic’ is slung around far too freely, in my opinion. Any fantasy or science fiction story that overflows to more than one volume seems to attract the word. Which is a shame when you finally trip over a work that really does deserve the appendage ‘epic’. And surely a seven-book marathon that successfully manages to keep hold of a large cast of characters; produce sufficient twists in the long-running plot without overwhelming the reader and manufacture a sophisticated world should be right up there as an epic. This series has been seriously overlooked as a shining example of classic high fantasy.

The action largely revolves around the kingdom of Wendar, although as rebellions and betrayals multiply, princeofdogsneighbouring countries move to take advantage of King Henry’s troubles. As the fighting intensifies, we have a detailed insight into the machinations of the plotters as they jostle for power. Elliott has written that she took medieval Europe as a template for the political situation – and I think it shows. Amongst the shifting alliances and set-piece battles, the world, along with its customs, history and religious practices, is clearly portrayed without any appreciable check in the narrative pace – a cool trick to pull off as those of us who write speculative fiction know only too well.

burningstoneSome of the main themes addressed in the series include the nature of love – when does legitimate affection tip into obsession? What happens when duty and love conflict? The price of power, both natural and supernatural, is also explored – and the conclusion seems to be that those with the greatest mastery also suffer the most lethal consequences. A rule which takes the plot in some interesting and unexpected directions… Varying attitudes to religious dogma are also examined, along with the different motivations for fanaticism – an uncomfortably pertinent theme these days.

A wealth of engrossing sub-plots wriggle throughout the series involving an impressive number of memorable childofflamecharacters, without any resultant annoyance or confusion. And this is from someone with such a low tolerance of multi-view adventures, I hurled George R.R. Martin’s Storm of Swords across the room in fury…

Any particular favourites among the seven volumes? As it happens, I found the second volume, Prince of Dogs, particularly engrossing. The encounter between a couple of the main protagonists and the resulting riveting outcome had me reading till the wee small hours. All the books make compulsive reading – but that particular one will lodge in my memory for a long, long time.

gatheringstormThroughout the series we follow the fortunes and disasters of Sanglant, King Henry’s bastard, half-human son who becomes a target when the King clearly shows his preference for him over his three legitimate half-siblings; Sister Rosvita, court advisor and chronicler who finds herself unwillingly swept up in the thick of the fighting; the beautiful and mysterious Liath, who spent her childhood fleeing an unknown, terrible enemy; Hugh, whose thirst for forbidden knowledge is nearly as fierce as his passion for Liath; and Alain, a foundling raised in humble circumstances, whose fortunes become completely entangled in Wendar’s woes. All these characters – and a host of others, are depicted with pleasing complexity. Each one has strengths and weaknesses that impact on the overall story. If I have a niggle – and it is a small one, given the overall strength of the series – I would have liked to have seen more of Anne and her motivations. She is the only character vital to the storyline that I feel could have been more developed.

In addition to the human world, other races include the exiled Ashioi and my personal favourite – the amazing Rock Children and intheruinstheir war leader, Stronghand. The system of magic in the Crown of Stars is pleasingly original and detailed – especially with the steadily increasing tension as the lead characters struggle to make sense of the growing threat to the world.

crownofstarsOf course, you also have to feel the investment in time, emotional energy and the sheer labour of reading seven hefty volumes pays off in a suitably satisfying ending. This was, I confess, a growing concern of mine as I got to the seventh and last book – it happens to be a real personal bugbear. However, Elliott manages to tick that box, too. The characters and storyline reach a variety of conclusions that succeed in tying up the multitude of loose ends. All in all, if you enjoy becoming totally immersed in a complex, well written world, peopled with a wide-ranging set of characters that moves along at a fair clip, then the whole series represents a solidly rewarding five star read.