This requires some background: back in 2005, I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop. My first day, I found on my desk a flier that advertised three books. Each book was by an Odyssey graduate, each book was a debut, and each book was debuting in 2005. The three books were Elaine Isaak’s A Singer’s Crown (which I own but have yet to read), Carrie Vaughn’s Kitty and the Midnight Hour (now where have I heard of that? /sarcasm) and Barbara Campbell’s Heartwood. Of the three, Campbell’s book got my attention the most because of its cover, its release date (I bought it while attending the workshop), and the fact it was fantasy, which was my genre of choice at the time. Also, I got to meet Campbell at the Odyssey graduation, and she was a delightful person who signed my book for me and talked about never giving up: it took her ten years to get Heartwood to where it was that day.
I read Heartwood that summer, six months before I started this book blog, so there is no review I can direct you to. But I will say that at the time, I loved it. I loved how it was a tribal fantasy instead of medieval, which really appealed to me, because I liked that level of realism. I liked the story, the broken characters, and the writing really appealed to me. There was only one thing about the book that I felt was too graphic, but I won’t mention it here, save to say that now that I’ve read the second book, I don’t feel that scene was too graphic after all. In fact, it was necessary.
When Bloodstone was released in 2006, I pounced. I didn’t read it, but I pounced. But I’m not sure why I didn’t read it right away. I suspect part of it was the length, and the other part was the cover, which I’ll discuss later. However, now that the final book in the trilogy, Foxfire was released this year, I decided it was time to catch up on my reading. After all, Campbell’s an Odyssey graduate! Also, and I made this our October challenge.
The premise: yanked from BN.com: New trouble lies ahead for Darak and Griane, now the Memory-Keeper and Healer of their tribe. Keirith, the eldest of their three children, has been apprenticed to the Tree-Father but is dismissed when his master learns that he has been riding the spirits of other living creatures. Convinced that his parents will also view him as an abomination, Keirith flees, only to be captured by slavers. Carried to the heart of a distant civilization, Keirith must confront the truth about himself and his powers, even while Darak, following the kidnappers’ trail, must struggle with his darkest fears if he is to have any hope of saving his son.
Review style: Stream of conscious. There will be spoilers in this review, so if that bothers you, just jump the the “My Rating” section of the review.
Reading Bloodstone so many years after reading Heartwood was an odd experience. For starters, when I read Heartwood in 2005, I wasn’t very well read in the science fiction/fantasy genre. I also realized, while reading Bloodstone, just how much I’d forgotten about Heartwood, which sometimes tripped me up a bit. commented to me (she’s reading the trilogy back-to-back-to-back) that she thought Bloodstone was easily a stand-alone, and I can see that, save for one thing that we both agree on: without having Heartwood under your belt, you don’t have Darak’s experience informing the character he is in Bloodstone, and that’s important thing to have. I alluded to the one thing I thought went too far in Heartwood, and what went too far, in my opinion, was the description of Darak’s torture when he was captured by Morgoth in Chaos. That was one scene that’s seared itself into my memory, but that helped my understanding of Darak in this book, because the experience seared itself into his memory too. His actions and reactions are defined by his experiences in Heartwood, and it makes me wonder just how well a reader can understand his character without those experiences under their belts as well.
Moving on: I worry a bit, but not much, whether or not I’d love Heartwood now as much as I did in 2005. And by that I don’t mean re-reading it now, but rather how I’d feel if I were reading it for the first time now. It’s a futile question really, because Campbell has her strengths that appear in both books, but the writing isn’t as strong as I remember. That said, I’m not going to let that influence my recommendation of Heartwood, simply because sometimes debuts are better written than the sophomore efforts, and also, I enjoyed the story, and I shouldn’t second-guess that.
I had more problems with the story of this particular book, however. Part of it was because so much of it felt so familiar. I’ve seen this sort of thing before, and it touched upon a lot of things I prefer not to read in my fiction: we have rape of both the male and female variety, and then there’s a near-rape of another character. The actual rapes do much to influence the characters’ behavior towards others, so the rapes aren’t gratuitous, but I do wish that Campbell had found other means to accomplish the same thing, but that’s a personal preference. Given the world-building, rape isn’t a surprise and nor should it be. I’m just sorry that’s the case.
The whole prophecy element regarding Keirith was also a little boring to me. After all, we’re all familiar with stories featuring “The Chosen One,” but I’ll give Campbell credit where it’s due: she doesn’t take the usual route. We read the prophecy and understand how it applies to Keirith, but no one really believes he’s the one, despite showing the signs. It’s an interesting commentary on the people of Zhe in that religion is more of a habitual thing than something that consumes them. Sure, they make sacrifices to the gods and no one dares speak to much blasphemy out loud, but still: you can tell that religion is a habit, and the POV characters (not of the Oak and Holly tribes, that is), take it only as seriously as they should. But believing that a boy is the son of a god? Few go that far, and that almost gets Keirith killed. Actually, it does get him killed.
Actually, that’s another thing Campbell does really well: she puts her characters through hell and forces them to change. Everything from Darak’s torture in Heartwood to Keirith’s rape and murder in Bloodstone, these characters are irrevocably altered by their experiences. I still question why Xevhan was so adamant about killing Keirith, about why he didn’t believe. Campbell usually does a very good job with characterization: even though they go through hell, you really sympathize with them and want to see them succeed (or fail, when appropriate). Xevhan’s motivations never truly made sense to me, save for needing an actual antagonist to put Keirith’s life in danger.
The book took a while for me to get through, and not because of the length: a lot it seemed to drag, whether it was Darak’s journey to rescue his son to Keirith’s living among the people of Zhe and learning their ways, there was very little pushing the story forward until Keirith and Darak discovered each other, and then the book was much harder to put down. I liked how stories came together and characters acted to save each other and themselves. I definitely didn’t see Keirith’s death coming, nor did I realize until the last minute that Keirith would use his spirit and his magic to drive Xevhan’s soul from his body so that he could take it over. There were so many good things about this ending, and about the journey home and the focus on how everyone always talks about the story itself and how the heroes accomplished their great feats, but no one talks about what happens afterward, about how the psychological damage can eat you alive if you let it (I’m reminded of The Return of the King, about Frodo choosing to leave the Shire for the Grey Havens). The return to the tribe was both resolution and set up for the next book, and by time it was finished, I was really looking forward to reading Foxfire.
Also, I want to comment here that I really like Campbell’s use of magic. While I’m a little confused with how it works for the people of the Oak and Holly, I think that’s only because I’m forgetting what I learned in Heartwood. What I do see, though, I like, and Keirith’s bond with the adders was really cool, especially as it led to the first climax of the book.
Campbell does a fantastic job with setting description, and that’s a nice thing to notice since setting is one of my personal weaknesses when it comes to writing. I rarely had trouble picturing the scene on the page, and I owe that to Campbell’s well-crafted scenes.
I’m ambivalent on Griane’s bargain with the Trickster. I sort of knew it was coming because I’d read the description of Foxfire long before I read Bloodstone, so I knew SOMETHING would happen here. That also meant I knew exactly what the Trickster was apologizing for at the end of the chapter. I feel sorry for Griane in that I don’t know what’s going to happen when the truth comes out, but I don’t blame her for her decision. She had precious little to do in this book, so having her do anything she could to save at least one of them (Darak or Keirith) makes sense. And the Trickster is, well, tricksy. In his interactions with Darak, there’s a part of me that wonders if we won’t see the Trickster try to seduce Darak. There’s an odd dynamic at work, and I look forward to seeing how it plays out.
One nitpick: the scenes with the tribe usually confused the snot out of me because there were SO MANY NAMES to keep up with all at once. Sometimes it appeared that Campbell was referring to one character when she really was referring to another, and that always sent my brain for a loop and had me re-reading passages. However, considering this book was published in 2006 and her latest was published this year, 2009, I’m not worried about seeing the trend continue. After all, I know for a fact the author regularly attends workshops, which means she’s constantly improving upon her craft. That, my friends, is something I admire.
Worth the Cash: yes, I had some personal issues with this book, but it’s a solid read. There’s characters you understand and really feel for, and the setting description is excellent. The plot may not be, on the surface, the most original story in the world. However, where Campbell goes with it does pack some surprises and punches at the end, which is what really snagged my interest and got me looking forward to book three in the trilogy. And on one hand, I’d say this book could stand alone, as it takes place MANY years after the events of Heartwood and is its own story (and incorporates background information very nicely without info-dumping), but on the other hand, to understand some of the characters and their actions, it might make sense to read Heartwood first, which I personally really enjoyed when I read it back in 2005. I also appreciate that this trilogy has a focus on tribal people instead of the more medieval setting we see in fantasy worlds, and that’s part of what really keeps my interest in this trilogy. So if you’re interested in character-centric fantasy and capricious gods (namely the Trickster), then give Heartwood a try, and then Bloodstone. Or, if you’d rather learn more about the author and her process first, then click here to read the interview I conducted with her for .
Cover Commentary: okay, let me make one thing clear: the art, in and of itself, is well done. However, I hate it. Sure, it depicts an important scene (rather, a vision characters have) from the book, but it makes this book look more like a cheesy bloodbath instead of what it is, which is a character-centric book that’s more introverted than action-packed. Granted, the cover of Heartwood makes that book look like a romance novel, but it least it gets the mood right. This one, not so much, and I really think its one of the reasons I put off reading it for so long. So to sum up: the art is well-done, but doesn’t match the mood of the book at all, so in my mind, it fails.
Next up: Prospero Lost by L. Jagi Lamplighter