To come clean - we have soft spot for Freya Robertson. She was one of the first authors to take a fearless plunge into the abyss of our "Story behind the Story" feature and all at a time when she didn't have a book out - not a speculative fiction one at least. Her essay made an honest and compelling read. So we were really looking forward to reading Heartwood. The whole idea behind the series looked really interesting and soon enough I found myself thinking that this could turn out to be really amazing as her background in writing romance novels gives her an unique opportunity to push against the recent tide of grimdark. This could be something new – a mad mash-up of genres! So does Heartwood fill these, quite big, shoes?
Yes and no. Heartwood is EPIC fantasy. Massive in scale and world building, with ever expanding cast of characters and converging plot lines. However, what's missing in this overwhelming onslaught of information is a bit of a feeling. This is not surprising and not necessary such a bad thing as this is the first book in the series and Freya spends first half of her book slowly introducing her world to the reader. But as the second half of the book stomps into view, everything fills into place, and Freya even introduces that refreshing (and anticipated) romance element.
Story opens up with failed Congressus peace talks held in fortified temple which houses Arbor - Heartwood's holy tree. Just as the talks are falling apart, attendees are ambushes by water warriors who, after killing many, steal the heart of wood. What follows is a classic quest. By all means, Heart must be retrieved but to start the healing process of Arbor, five Nodes located at five location must be activated and a mage called Virimage must be found. Seven groups, seven quests, one goal. See what I meant when I mentioned multiple storylines? Luckily Freya juggles these with ease and they're not especially hard to follow. Plot is gripping and the characters are great, and despite my, perhaps unrealistic, expectations I've really enjoyed Heartwood. It felt like reading a really good computer game, if that makes any sense.
I have a nagging feeling, now that the world building is out of the way, that the sequel could really be something special. Whether I'm having those unrealistic expectations again remains to be seen.