Heartwood by Freya Robertson reminded me of a train. Not a smooth, lightening bullet, train, but a heavy duty, gnarly freight train. It started out slowly, chugging and plugging along, and then little by little it built up speed until it was barreling along, all power and there was no stopping it until it came to its final screeching halt. I didn’t want to put this book down once it got its speed up.
As the image on the cover suggests, Heartwood is all about noble knights on a quest. The knights set out to save their beloved Arbor, a tree that is the magical holy symbol of their religion and has kept the land of Anguis united for hundreds of years. The Arbor grows in Heartwood, a military base and religious enclave that has been erected surrounding the tree. After an attack on the tree by mysterious warriors, the Militis of Heartwood (holy knights raised to protect the tree) and other leaders must find ways to energize and heal the tree, and bring peace back to Anguis.
There are quite a few main characters that battle in this exciting romp, and it’s refreshing that there’s a nice balance of tough, seasoned females, rather than a preponderance of hardened male lead characters. Chonrad, the Lord of Barle, represents the calm, fair-minded aristocracy. A widowed father, Chonrad struggles with his deeply buried bitterness over not having been chosen to serve as a Militis as a child. Procella is a high ranking Militis knight, fanatically loyal to her religion and her duty to serve. Beata is a young dean of Heartwood, brilliant fighter who finds love and her ability to lead as she participates in the quest. Then there are the knight twins, Gavius and Gravis. Identical in appearance, they emerge as light and dark, confidence and uncertainty, gaiety and gravity. (Were the names chosen to represent these attributes?) Dolosus was chosen late in life to serve with the Militis and has lost an arm due to a wild, negligent streak. Can he triumph even with being disadvantaged in battle? All the characters must face a challenge, overcome it, and then rejoin the fight to repair the Arbor.
The main foes in Heartwood are water warriors. These guys are pretty sweet. Watery, green glowing eyes, they emerge from the water to attack the Arbor and ruthlessly slaughter those in Heartwood. Their armor, city are cool and Robertson has come up with some inventive baddies here; they are quite a bit more interesting than the good guys. Which leads to a bit of the problem with Robertson’s female lead characters, they all cave in to their emotions. Oh, they put up a bit a struggle with their feelings, but all of them eventually succumb to a male character’s advances. It was somewhat of a letdown each time when you were so hoping for a much stronger character to emerge. Robertson relied quite a bit on the romance novel formula for these characters.
Also, although the story was exciting, leading to the major climax at the end, the many intervals switching back and forth from character to character were so similar to each other that it became somewhat predictable rather quickly. Character travels a short distance. Some supernatural or psychic occurrence shakes him or her up, causing them to question their integrity. Then each character had to overcome their lack of confidence or faults. What I enjoyed and was surprising were the number of characters Robertson surprisingly kills off. She certainly kept us off guard in that respect.
Despite these couple of disappointing glitches in Heartwood, I really liked the book as a whole. The characters were enjoyable, the world felt rich and its history well built, and the ending was really full and satisfying. It’s so rare lately when a book gets wrapped up and doesn’t leave you hanging for the sequel.