In Heartwood, the Arbor tree is the center of worship, power and spiritual sustenance. The world is in a state of chaos, the Arbor is shrinking and nations are squabbling with each other. The stage is set for a meeting – the Congressus – of the heads of nations at the Heartwood with the hope to become a more unified world, since the Arbor is very much affected by the chaos in the world. Unfortunately peace is a tricksy thing and before an accord of peace can be finalized, a strange, unknown enemy to arises out of the water and attacks all those attending the Congressus.
Robertson introduces many of the players at this gathering including the Holy Knights of the Heartwood, elite defenders of the Arbor as well as the many nations gathering to meet for a potential halt to hostilities. The protagonist, at least for the first third of the novel, seems to be Chonrad, a man who tried but was unsuccessful at becoming a Holy Knight and is sent to represent his nation at the Congressus. The Knights are led by Procella, a woman with whom Chonrad feels a great connection. Other knights include Beata, another female knight and Dean at Heartwood; twins Gravis and Gavius. Additionally, members of other nations, such as Fionnghuala of the Hanairean and Grimbeard, of the Wulfian where war rules all and men just take women are introduced.
The enemies are Water Elementals who are looking to enact a long standing plan of revenge for something those of the Heartwood and the surface world have done ages ago but don’t even remember. Fortunately, their attack breaks open a long-closed vault containing artifacts documenting the “true” history of the world providing the attendees with a blueprint of what their enemies are and how they can proactively combat the Water Elementals.
After the Knights and attendees of the Congressus come up with a plan based on their discoveries in the thought-to-be lost texts, we have several Quests to be undertaken by several different groups of characters. Along the way, the characters come to realize a great deal about themselves; Grimbeard’s nation expect a harsh, practically barbaric attitude towards woman and enemies (always destroy them) conflicts with what he knows in his heart to be right. Beata must face her own self-doubt and the twins Gravis and Gavius learn truths about themselves.
What started as a novel with great potential conflict and interesting, if familiar, world and story fell under the weight of info-dumps and backstory. I liked the characters, I liked the world, but after the ample world-building in the first third of the novel, I felt ready for the story, particularly since it seemed to be pointed in the direction of multiple quests, to move at a more brisk pace. With each of the quests the characters were split up to undertake, we learned more about the characters. Too many weighty details are revealed about the characters by the characters themselves as inner monologue to allow for narrative the move along at a good pace. I also felt it was extremely convenient for the attack by the Water Elementals at the beginning of the novel to provide access to the long-hidden documents. I appreciated the gender balance Robertson presented with the Knights and especially that a woman was leading them. The strength of the novel was in the character of Procella in particular and how very real her actions and emotions felt.
Heartwood turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag, because underneath all the dense backstory and over-explained elements, Robertson has the kernel of an interesting story and world. Ultimately, the novel cracked a bit under the weight of the heavily explained and overly detailed backstory.
Paperback (528 Pages): ISBN: 9780857663863 / EBook: ISBN: 9780857663870
Review e-Arc courtesy of publisher Angry Robot Books