Thursday, July 24, 2014
Heartwood, by Freya Robertson.
Heartwood, by Freya Robertson.
1st off, bad news no images with this review. Maybe later.
I have a group of friends who I speak to fairly often on Skype. These poor souls had to endure me ranting and raving about this book and might be fairly relieved that it's all over. For now.
Heartwood is a book of epic fantasy, taking place in a religiously unified world where everyone worships the Arbor, a giant oak tree that is connected to the creation spirit of the world. Guarded by the Militas an order of celibate (but not chaste) male and female knights, who also take up the duties of trying to maintain peaceful borders between several nations who are at the best next thing to actual war. At 519 pages you would think the book hefty enough, but you would sadly be wrong. Stuffed in this book are dozens of characters, many battles, 5 grand quests, 3 romances, 2 massive invasions, and one epic Revelation about the nature of tree which lies at the center of this world religion and that's what I can tell you without massive spoilers! Additionally there are characters who will come to grapple with their own self worth and true natures, the hidden events of their past coming to haunt them and the idea that they may have devoted their lives to a mistake. None of these events, characters or stories are given enough space to really unfold or the grounding to deliver the kind of impact that this story deserves. In shot, Freya Robertson is a good writer, but she is in to much of a damn hurry to develop her interesting stories (plural because Ms. Robertson, you were telling several stories here).
Robertson keeps jumping form quest to quest often with awkward breaking points. We don't get to know anyone expect the leaders of the quests (and even then we aren't given enough time with them expect for maybe 2 characters,). This is a shame because even the supporting characters are hinted at having interesting stories and features and profound relationships with their leaders. However when they suffer and die, the impact is much less because I can't even keep all them straight much less have any connection to them. In fact we have one supporting character, a female knight who goes on a quest with her fellows to help save the world. See's strange and interesting lands, is captured by savages (who frankly are elf stands in with their pointy ears filed off, see more below), horribly abused but shows bravery and determination. This woman escapes from under the eyes of her captors and from the middle of hostile lands alone and unarmed finds her way home! This is an amazing story... Which is mentioned in 2 lines of dialogue.
You see my problem.
The world itself is steched in some what thinly as well (because Robertson is trying to tell me so much). In it you will be introduced to at least 4 cultures (5 if I count the Militas) 2 of them Laxony and Hanaire bluntly blurred together for me. But that might be because I didn't get much time with them. Oh characters spend alot of time there, but I, the reader? Didn't. Although Chonrad the noble from Laxony does a good job representing his culture all by himself (he's the closest thing the book has to a main character though). That might be a good thing because frankly Robertson shows me, she doesn't really understand how societies work (I'm not trying to be insulting here but...) when she does try to detail her societies they don't work! This is a common problem with fantasy and science fiction writers and it's a serious one when the average fantasy/sci-fi writer is actually churning out societies en masse.
For example the Wulfengars. This is a feudal society where ownership of title and land is passed from father to son. Women have no property rights and are the servants of men. They are short, hairy, close mouthed and prone to hitting things (I almost think that they were dwarves in a 1st draft that got rewritten, this is not a problem, changing dwarves and elves to humans would actually make a number of fantasy series easier to read). Often embroiled in feuds with their neighbors and they love raiding the Laxons and Hainires. Wulfengars tend to not believe in marriage and just grab whatever woman strikes their passing fancy.
NO! FLAG ON THE FIELD!
Look, I got to point out the basic flaw of this arrangement. If you don't have some form of informal/formal relationship where you're the only person sleeping with the girl, how do you know it's your son you're passing the title to? There's a reason most hunter gathers don't have formal marriage ceremonies and most societies where you own land to. Part of it is to ensure inheritance is passed on to the right people (which isn't an issue in most hunter gather societies, there's no property to pass on!). In the real world the solution most Patrilineal societies adopted was to make women the wards of their male relatives in some manner or another. Or to put it bluntly, in a society like this women are the property of their fathers, brothers or husbands. To be clear I'm not saying this is a good thing! But it is historically how just about every society faced with this problem decided to solve it! There are levels here of course. In Medieval Europe women could and did hold property, run business and have noble office and titles. But there are also other times and places where their sex disqualified them.
Look I know most of you won't give a damn about stuff like this but I did frankly spend alot of time studying how societies worked and how they formed. So this stuff is like biting into a steak and finding a core of sand instead of good red meat. I could and have kept going on stuff like this for a damn long while, but I'll stop here because this is a book review not a Frigid shows off his education review.
Speaking of groups that were likely made human in later drafts there are the Komis. A group of people who tend to have golden eyes, be fairly pretty and live deep in the forests in cities built in the treetops... Oh they also have special green magic powers that let them grow plants and heal people. They're also not very nice people, which is an interesting change... But again the book doesn't have the space to really get into this. In the final battle I find myself asking why are they there? Their presence is almost a throwaway to the real battle (I'm not going to spoil who the real bad guys are, because that's the best part of the book!) and they're hand waved away. Honestly? I tend to feel anytime you have to hand wave away an invading army you've made a mistake. You could have cut out the Komis invasion and not lost a damn thing in this story.
Honestly Heartwood feels like it should have been 2 or even 3 books. I'm going to point out David Eddings spent 3 books on a single quest and 2 books on the aftermath for the Belgariad. Which worked because I remember those characters and that story years later. I have a feeling that besides Chonrad and Beata, I'll have trouble remembering the characters of Heartwood next week, forget next year. Although the ones Robertson does spend time on are done really well. Beata and Chonrad and their conflicts both internal and external are very well done! I was very sympathetic to Beata and felt that Chonrad was a great leader and an all around good guy. It's just a shame that there wasn't time or space for the others...
Heartwood gets a C, the premise and the characters that actually get to grow and move in this story keep it from being a C-. However the damnable rush, poor grasp of how societies function and the missing details means that average is the best this book can ever hope to be. Freya Robertson in the unlikely event you ever read this, I think you're a good writer and you have some interesting stories but you should slow down and tell me these stories.
Man, I did not enjoy being that rough... I'm going back to nonfiction.