I was looking forward to Heartwood since I heard about it months ago. It’s a book about knights, war and magic. Excited to get an ARC of this from Angry Robot, I was eager to finally read it. Sadly, I was disappointed. I don’t know exactly what style of book I expected, but the one I got just unfortunately did not work for me.
The world building in the beginning of the book is …. extensive. It is not built bit by bit as it is relevant in the story, but rather listed out and explained. I wasn’t sure if I would keep it all straight, but went with it and kept reading. Well, that turned out to not be an issue. I haven’t gone back to verify, but I suspect that much of the information about the world that bogs down the beginning of the book turns out to be extraneous information and not necessarily relevant to the story. It was like Robertson had planned out so many details of her world before writing and just had to share them with the reader. I don’t mind world building when there is a purpose and it is relevant or maybe a couple of little extra cool facts here or there. In this book, I think I would have preferred if it were spread out. I’m left feeling like at least some if it was never referenced again. Since I am not verifying that, I could be wrong. The fact that I am left with that impression whether it is accurate or not still speaks to the way the information was presented. I don’t remember feeling like that with other epic fantasy that had a good deal of world building.
The world is made up of several countries, each with their own culture. It features handy ways for the reader to generalize an entire population. For example, Wulfians are the evil ones. In Wulfengar, they solve everything with war, they don’t believe in marriage, the men just take women whenever they want and try to get as many children from as many women as possible. Women are seen as lesser citizens, there only to cook, clean and bear children. I do know that generalizations and stereotypes can be useful in a book to illustrate a point (against generalizing and stereotyping), but I just felt like these were done to such an extreme that they seemed more caricatures than anything else. Personally, I would have preferred a bit more subtlety.
That said, there was some interesting and relevant world building as well. I did enjoy the concept of the elemental magic that exists. The knights are bound to protect a holy tree that helps keep the world in order. When the tree is threatened and the knights are attacked by a previously unknown enemy that actually rises out of the water, very cool, the story felt like it could be quite good. But, I just could not get into it. And unfortunately, the magic also became a deus a machine that gets to work in conjunction with some convenient coincidences to help speed resolutions.
There was one trait that was common in her writing, whether it was world building or the meat of the story: Over explaining. Some readers don’t mind this and will not label it as “over explaining”. Robertson is certainly not the only author I have seen do this, I had the same issue with Trudi Canavan’s books (which are quite successful). It is a trait that is quite common among YA books and I think it serves a purpose there. But for me, I feel like the author tried to hold the reader’s hand and spoon feed them all the details of character motivations and emotions and inner turmoils. Pretty much, this book is full of telling rather than showing. I also think it could serve as a good example of why showing is better than telling. There may be room to infer meaning in the larger story, but within the details and actions, it is spelled out for the reader.
Now comes time for my final comment about the book: the characters. I just had no emotional attachment to any of them. There were several that I felt like I could be interested in their storylines, but even they still fell short for me. Once again, I think some of this comes down to the writing style. I often felt like I was reading a sterile description of events and reactions. Everything was broken down for me to the point where I just could not bring myself to care. Resolutions came easily and there was little suspense. Also, the way her characters would behave at times left me feeling like I was reading about a group of overly emotional pubescent teenagers. Maybe overly emotional is not the correct description. I don’t mind emotional reactions, characters should be human. What I do mind is characters breaking down and losing what I would consider their sense of self in pursuit of or reaction to a relationship. Especially when the relationship develops almost instantaneously. In this book, I did find myself annoyed at characters for having absurd concerns due to some overnight infatuation/love or whatever you would like to label it. It actually greatly detracted from the story quite a bit for me.
Anyway, I do think there are some very cool and interesting concepts in this book. I’m a huge fan of epic fantasy and appreciate the world and the number of characters. I always enjoy stories that are told through the lives of a number of different people. But it just came down to the style of writing that just did not match what I look for in a book. Maybe there is audience for Heartwood somewhere but it doesn’t include me.
Review by: Lisa Taylor
Thanks to Angry Robot for the ARC of Heartwood.