Arbor-cadabra: Magic in Heartwood by Freya Robertson.

Greetings fellow insomniacs! Last week I reviewed the epic fantasy Heartwood by Freya Robertson, and this week the lady herself has kindly done a guest post for SMOAWGMM readers.
So without further ado I shall hand you over to Freya.

Hi, and thanks for having me on the blog today!

As a topic for the post, you asked me about the magic systems behind Heartwood, and whether the gaming I do has any influence on the way I write about magic in my fantasy.

The Lord of the Rings and subsequent novels like Brooks’s Shannara series pretty much covered magic items, and Harry Potter has monopolised the wand waving, Latin-word casting form of magic, so anything written with these features is now seen as a copy. It’s a challenge to find a different way to represent magic in a fantasy novel.

Does a fantasy novel even need magic? I play MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2 and tabletop games like Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and magic plays a big part in these. The expansion to the eighth edition of Warhammer called Storm of Magic brought even more emphasis to magic in the game, and I loved exploring the numerous schools of magic with the wizards. Warhammer is great because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and half the fun is the possibility of the wizards blowing themselves up! But playing fantasy games in all their various forms reinforces the importance of magic in the genre. We can set our story in a quasi-medieval setting, give the characters quests and create maps of vasts lands until the cows come home, but it’s the introduction of some kind of magic system that lifts the story out of being some kind of historical-lookalike and into the fantasy genre.

I decided when writing Heartwood that although I wanted it to be a recognisably traditional epic fantasy in many ways, I also wanted to give it a more modern twist. So it doesn’t have elves, orcs or dwarves, and there is also much more of a gender balance than was usual in the medieval period. The other way I decided to make it different was in the way magic was used.

In Heartwood, there are no magic swords or indeed any magic items, and no wand waving. Instead, the supernatural element was born through my interest in nature religions such as paganism and Wicca and healing systems like Reiki. In the story, the Arbor—the tree at the centre of the fortified temple of Heartwood—controls the flow of energy across the land through its roots, and a major theme of the story is the discovery that the land and the people are in fact one, and the reason the land is failing is because there is war between the various societies. This is also an Arthurian idea, “a king without a sword, a land without a king,” the notion that somehow the citizens of a country are somehow linked with the fertility of the land. Behind this is a veiled reference to global warming and the fact that—now we surround ourselves with concrete—perhaps we have lost the link with the earth that our ancestors once had.

Magic in Heartwood is related to a character’s personal energy, and is linked with the idea that we can affect the living things around us with our energy flow. The people of Anguis discover there is much more to their world than what they see around them, and they learn that the only way for them to keep the land fertile and to hold back the bond that stops other elements from invading is to understand and cultivate their control over the flow of energy through the land.


Thank you Freya! Heartwood is out now from Angry Robot Books. You can find out more about Freya on her website and she can be found on twitter @EpicFreya.

The Lives of Tao and The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu: A Double Review

When out-of-shape IT technician Roen wakes up and starts hearing voices in his head, he naturally assumes he’s losing it.

He isn’t

As of last night, he has a passenger in his brain – an ancient alien life-form called Tao, whose race crash-landed on Earth before the first fish crawled out of the oceans. Over the millennia his people have trained human heroes to be great leaders, to advance our species at a rate far beyond what it would have achieved on its own. Split into two opposing factions – the peace-loving, but under-represented Prophus, and the savage, powerful Genjix – the aliens have been in a state of civil war for centuries. Both sides are searching for a way off-planet… And the Genjix will sacrifice the entire human race, if that’s what it takes.

So now Roen must train to be a hero worthy of his unwanted companion. Like that’s going to end up well…

What if, every act of history, science and mans greatest discoveries were all done by extra terrestrial biological entities that use humans (and animals) as hosts.
I know, right?

Mind. Blown!

The story begins right in the midst of the action. A covert operation has gone awry and a Prophus agent has died leaving his Quasing (the infamous Tao) to find a new host.
Enter Roen Tan, the overweight, lazy, I.T technician.
Jason Bourne, he is not.
One of Tao’s hosts was Gengis Khan (remember him)? So there is no better extra-terrestrial to train Roen.
The story is fast paced and full of tense moments, that have you clinging to the book in case you drop it in a moment of shock. Everything about the Quasing is explained in detail, but not in a dreaded info-dump kind of way, for example the story of Tao’s life is gently fed into the beginning of each chapter.
I have to admit I didn’t particularly like the character of Roen to begin with, but before long I certainly warmed to him. This I think is helped with the growing bond that happens between Tao and Roen.
Chu, has filled this story with a lot of humorous interactions, sometimes at the most precarious of times but done so in a way to make the reader really care about what is going to happen next.
Combining a sci-fi with a spy thriller (or I suppose spy-fi), done to a very high standard, and also intertwining historical events that shaped the world Wesley Chu certainly has created something really special. And after finishing the book one starts to think “What if?” This I feel, is one important aspect of great SF, and one that The Lives Of Tao, certainly lives up too, (I reckon Simon Cowell is a host for a Genjix Quasing).

I highly recommend The Lives Of Tao, and wish I read it sooner, (Then again, my Quasing told me to say that.)

The Deaths Of Tao by Wesley Chu

The Prophus and the Genjix have now both found a way off-planet. The Genjix method will take less time – about 30 years’ less time – but will mean the ultimate destruction of mankind in the process.

They think it a small price to pay to get home

Book 2 is an adrenaline filled, mile a minute full of twists and turns, and plenty of laughs. It takes place a few years after The Lives Of Tao, and the Genjix have left no stone unturned, and are in firm control of the board and all the pieces.
Tao and Roen are going it alone and chasing up their own theories much to the Keeper’s displeasure. They are hiding out in an abandoned missile-silo (very cool). Eventually Roen and Tao find themselves back in the throes of the Prophus- whose resources are somewhat lacking to say the least. And of course, chaos ensues all around the Prophus agents.

In The Deaths Of Tao, the perspective of Jill is a really welcome addition and does not slow the story down. Jill and her Quasing (who shall remain nameless because spoilers), have a very love/hate relationship and the reader will see that they have some very funny interactions. You could almost compare Jill’s Quasing to a disapproving mother/father.
Again Chu features some more geek references, some of which are absolutely brilliant, (the Star Wars quote by Tao and Roens reaction to this is bloody brilliant).
Chu has not sacrificed the laughs, that’s for certain.

The main antagonist (Enzo, the Adonis Vessel) and his Quasing, Zoras, who together are equally terrifying.
What makes this worse is that Enzo, although worshipping his alien-overlords, almost feels himself to be more superior than them and is somewhat dangerously unpredictable and ruthless towards the Prophus.

The Deaths Of Tao heightens the drama and the reader can feel the tension glowing from the pages. Some characters from book 1, return and there is a few surprises in store for the reader, and also a few shocks.
Wesley Chu obviously is a host for a Quasing of superior power, fans of book one will not be disappointed, his ability to not only craft an intelligent sci-fi but include historical features, humour and tie it up neatly into a mile a minute spy thriller, the fellow is certainly rather talented.
I look forward to book three, which I’m sure Wesley Chu will have something spectacular in store for us.


The Lives Of Tao and The Deaths Of Tao by Wesley Chu are out now from Angry Robot ( to find more about Wesley Chu, log onto his website and he can be found on Twitter at

Thankyou to Angry Robot for providing me with both of these novels.

Heartwood by Freya Robertson: A Review.

Chonrad, Lord of Barle, comes to the fortified temple of Heartwood for the Congressus peace talks, which Heartwood’s holy knights have called in an attempt to stave off war in Anguis. But the Arbor, Heartwood’s holy tree, is failing, and because the land and its people are one, it is imperative the nations try to make peace.
After the Veriditas, or annual Greening Ceremony, the Congressus takes place. The talks do not go well and tempers are rising when an army of warriors emerges from the river. After a fierce battle, the Heartwood knights discover that the water warriors have stolen the Arbor’s heart. For the first time in history, its leaves begin to fall…

The knights divide into seven groups and begin an epic quest to retrieve the Arbor, and save the land.

Swords and chivalry, quests and shrubbery, and not one Knight who says Ni!
Heartwood (Elemental Wars) by Freya Robertson, is a story that entices and captivates from the very first chapter, and beyond. Transporting the reader right into the world of Anguis and placed firmly amongst the stunning array of characters and their plight.

Robertson has created something really special with the world of Anguis and with all of its ecological and chronological functions etc. Nothing has been left out and the conveyance of this is remarkable.
In the story the Arbor is the heart of Anguis formed by the tears of the God Animus. The tears hardened and formed the Pectoris “the heart of all creation.”
With this in mind, I continued reading (not able to put it down) and saw that in the world of Anguis, every action and reaction is connected to the land and thus to the heart of the land (the Arbor). So in my mind Anguis became a major character within the story. And all though the Militas of the temple were Heartwood’s protectors, the inhabitants of the land are also connected to Anguis, in some way shape or form.
The connection of nature to everything, and how that affects the knights and vice versa.

Chonrad, Lord of Barle, is a very likeable protagonist and his interactions with his fellow knights (such as Procella), moved the story along with great fluidity. Although the world of Anguis and the ways of its people are at times complex, not once does Robertson bog the reader down with unnecessary information. Everything spoken or conveyed otherwise is done in such a way that leaves the reader wanting to know more.

The fight scenes were not overly drawn out, and the detail in which Robertson describes a battle scene, is somewhat technical but done so in a way that shows the reader every flow and strike of a sword. One of the first battles with the water warriors is a personal favourite of mine.

With the attack from the water warriors, comes a discovery that challenges the characters beliefs of their religion and of their place within Anguis.
The discovery reveals that across the four corners of the land, there are nodes (which conduct the energy from the tree to the relevant parts of the land), these nodes must be cleansed from any dark energy impeding the flow or else the land will fail.
With this information and more, the seven knights depart on their strenuous journey. Some of Heartwood’s Militis are not only struggling with the challenge of leaving the temple for the first time, but also the freedom from ritual and routine, and what that means for the knights and their quest.
The knights quest is very much like the Arbor. Each knight (in my mind)resembles a branch and upon leaving the holy place of Heartwood learns how to grow and spread their leaves etc this returns to the idea that everything is connected.

As one might see, I am quite taken with this epic tale, and I very much look forward to another trip into Anguis

A journey of the heart and a voyage of the mind. 9/10

Heartwood by Freya Robertson is available via Angry Robot ( on the 7th November in the U.K and was released on the 29th Oct in the U.S.

You can find out more about the author on and

This ARC was kindly provided to me by Angry Robot Books.