Heartwood is the debut novel of Freya Robertson (under that name, she's also published more than twenty romance novels as Serenity Woods). It is an epic fantasy, but different than you'd expect from typical fantasy novels. You will not find elves, dwarves, dragons, or other mystical creatures. Mages or other magicians are not what you might expect but similar powers do manifest in different ways. What you will find is a unique spin on the fantasized medieval environment of lords, ladies, and knights. Actually, make that just knights – which is one of the few problems in the story that I'll get to in a moment. Robertson's previous work as a romance writer does show up in a few of the relationships, but it's generally a strength rather than a bodice-ripping distraction. It all comes together well as a good but imperfect novel.
As we discussed in last week's interview, Freya has a strength in world-building and the religious focus of the story is definitely present. There is a handy chart at the beginning of the book describing the calendar in Anguis, consisting of 240 days, eight seasons and apparently 30 phases of the moon. She has also segmented the typical activities of each 18 hour day. These are nice details though none of it was ever really necessary to follow the story. The provided timeline of the world, with it's important religious and political dates, was a little more handy but still not strictly necessary. Again, the details are nice and they don't distract from reading the novel if you don't really care about them. But it does give a quick background into a world that, much like our own, is shaped and categorized by a dominant religion. This world-building aspect is certainly inspired by Robertson's role playing and gaming background.
That background isn't always a good thing. In role-playing games you tend to have a very precise focus only on what your player characters are experiencing, sometimes to the extent that innkeepers don't even have names if your Gamemaster isn't feeling that creative. While it's normal for a novel to follow only the main characters in a story, especially with such a large cast on various quests, the lack of side characters in Heartwood is actually a distraction. The Militis and various other knightly factions draw too much focus. All of the primary and secondary characters fit within some class of warrior, monk, or warrior monk. The religion is key to the plot, the world, and the story-telling. But even in medieval Europe there were a few people that didn't follow Christianity and a lot more that only did it outwardly. There doesn't seem to be a single character of any relevance that isn't drinking the Kool-Aid. Granted this is a fantasy world and the powers of Animus are clear, but not that clear. Even if the religion can be accepted as fact, which I'm willing to suspend disbelief that far, it's still distracting that we never learn how the common people feel about this potential apocalypse. They simply give the knights food, lodging, and directions then wander back into the obscurity of an NPC. These are interactions I expect in a video game, not in a novel. Can't I just get a peek of what's happening in the barmaid's head while she's serving these Jedi on their “damn fool idealistic crusade.”
Character gripes aside, the multiple quests of the story are each interesting in their own way. There's the prerequisite sexual tension, which is where the romance writer background plays its part. Don't worry, there's no Fabio cover. Nor is there a trite Hunger Games-esque love triangle – a plot device that is so far over-used I've been known to drop a book at the halfway mark to avoid it. Other fun twists include warriors made of water, a stolen shadow, a man who burps rose petals (you don't want to know about his farts), and a baby crying from beyond the grave. Which all sounds absurd when put so simply. It's a credit to Robertson's writing that it all works so well together.
I'd be hard-pressed to delineate a target audience for the novel, but I definitely recommend it. The drama is strong, the religious overtones can be interesting if occasionally frustrating, the “romance” works, and the writing is quite well done. I'm definitely looking forward to Robertson's next book, Sunstone, coming in March 2014.