Heartland by Lucy Hounsom
Publisher - Pan
Price - £7.99 Paperback
WARNING - Spoilers follow if you've not yet read Starborn the first book in the Worldbreaker trilogy
Kyndra has saved and damned Mariar's people. Her Starborn powers healed the land, but destroyed the magic which concealed them from invaders. How Kyndra must head into enemy territory to secure peace. She finds the warring Sartyan Empire plagued by dissident factions. Yet its emperor still has the strength to crush her homeland.
The Khronostrians, assassins who dance through time could help Kyndra - or be her undoing. And deep in the forest Char Lesko struggles with his own emerging powers. He's been raised by a mercenary, and her secrets could change the future and the past. But when Kyndra and Char meet, will their goals align? Kyndra has to harness the glory of the stars and Char must channel his rage or two continents will be lost.
You may recall I was very warm in my review of the first novel in the Worldbreaker trilogy - Starborn is one of my favourite fantasy debuts in recent years and I’ve been eagerly awaiting to find out what happened next in the sequel Heartland. Luckily both remaining parts of the trilogy are out in 2016 (final part next month). I'm pleased to say that Heartland is a step up in terms of scale, character and quality which now makes me just need the final volume right now….right now…….anytime now…
In the previous novel we left Kyndra having finally inherited her powers as a Starborn – someone who can literally summon ALL of the cosmic forces of the sky at any time. As part of this transformation she had the power to stop the various enchanted apocalyptic storms wrecking havoc on the local population but by doing so made she removed the enchantment that made Raimar finally visible again to the Empire it has been at war with several centuries ago and nearly conquered by. This novel explores the consequences of that how the Sartyan Empire reacts to their ancient enemies returning. Kyndra and a small group of Wielders (people able to harness the energy of the Moon or the Sun) go on a scouting mission to find out if the Empire may now be ready to talk.
One criticism of Starborn is that it took a while to move from Kyndra’s home town to reaching the wider world of the wielders but in this book with all the set-up to explain how the magic system works now completed means Hounsom can march straight into the action. Cleverly the story this time is divided between four main groups. Kyndra trying to work out if the Empire is a threat; back home with her former protector Bregenne trying to persuade her fellow Wielders that it may be time to shore up the defences and interestingly two new groups from the Empire itself. We meet General Hagdon a noble army commander who the Emperor has ordered to battle a local sect of mysterious assassins and most intriguing Char Lesko a young man who has become a slaver in tandem with his tough as nails guardian known as Ma. These welcome additions show the Sartyans as a divided group on the brink of civil war. I love a bit of palace intrigue and seeing the Empire as more than a group of evil monsters is a welcome change to some fantasy series out there. Char is an interesting character who seems to be full of pent up rage and while initially I was not that sympathetic slowly we saw the struggle this young man is having particularly as he too seems to have a very different type of power to Kyndra’s.
I really enjoyed the way the novel poses different kind of problems for Kyndra and her allies to face. Kyndra a relatively young woman from a small village is now thrust into a tense and dangerous world of politics and strategy – she is initially reluctant to demonstrate her power as Starborn energy seems to have an impact on her humanity but when she finally uses it the effects are devastating. Where she now goes with this rather tempting ability to destroy is a growing theme in the story. When you are the most powerful person in the room how do you stop yourself going too far? There are also some gloriously staged set pieces of violence and battle in this story which give the book a lot of energy as it balances the plots but at the same time it points out violence has consequences and how the cast start reacting to Kyndra sets up some interesting thoughts for the rest of the series.
I also must mention the addition of the Kronostians – assassins wrapped in bandages who can battle you by moving insanely quick through time - both eerie and a key mystery to the book is how this group relates to everyone else. Hounsom has a really nice way of making a battle scene be visualized which is something I like to see in fantasy.
Middle books of a trilogy are always tricky, but I think Heartland is a successful tale as it is different beats to its predecessor, but I think uses the foundations of the world to give me a much more epic feel and surprises such as time travelling assassins were not what I expected. Strongly recommended if you like modern epic fantasy. As you’d expect there is a lot to now get resolved in the final volume Firestorm but start reading this now as wintry evenings on the sofa with a good book are what epic fantasy while feeling toasty on the burnt remains of your enemies as you read is the best feeling ever!