Friday, 23 March 2012

Review: 'Treespeaker' by Katie W Stewart

This was another free book, although I have no idea where I got it from (it's still cheap on Amazon). I've learned to be wary of freebies, but there's no need with this one - it's a charming and absorbing story, well-written and thankfully also well-edited. It's a quiet tale of one man and his son trying to protect their people's way of life from encroaching outsiders. Those with a liking for action should look elsewhere; there are no battles, no sword fights and not a single buckle is swashed.

I very much liked the setting - a gentle society living (rather idealistically, it must be said) in harmony with their forest, protected by their god Arrakesh and his mouthpiece Jakan, the Treespeaker of the title. It's probably not a realistic way of life (acorn bread?? and how do they manage to find so much firewood without impacting the forest?) but then this is fantasy. The most disappointing aspect, for me, was the traditional division of labour - men hunt and collect firewood and mend the roof, women tend goats and vegetables, and cook and sew. But at least the women could become Elders, which is something, I suppose. But I would have liked a little more information about the lifestyle of the Arrakeshi. And a map - fantasy is always better with a map, in my opinion (I did eventually find a rather sketchy one on one of the author's numerous websites/blogs).

The story is, it has to be said, somewhat simplistic. The Arrakeshi, with their principle of living in harmony with the forest, are definitely the good guys, and Carlika, the world outside, is the Big Bad, set on eliminating or enslaving the Arrakeshi and exploiting the forest resources. And although some attempt is made to justify these actions (they are forced to use slaves to dig for coal because they destroyed all their own forests, slavers have to earn a crust too and so on), it's fairly half-hearted. Carlika itself is rather glossed over - there are roads and farms and towns and villages, but the story jumps quickly from one place to another, and Jakan's reactions to this strange environment are only sparsely described. Since he has never left the forest before, it should feel more alien to him, yet this seldom comes across.

The magic systems used by the two societies are equally differentiated. The Arrakeshi have a Treespeaker for each tribe, who is in communication with the god Arrakesh through the forest itself, and follow orders regarding the number of deer they can hunt each year, and so on, to maintain a proper balance. The Treespeaker also has healing powers, augmented by a special kind of stone. The Carlikans have a more destructive kind of magic, which can control minds, create fire, fell trees and generally wreak havoc.

The characters are not overly deep, but they do have a certain quirky charm. I would have liked to see some of the female roles given more screen-time, rather than being used as background characters to help or motivate the leading men, or simply to move the plot along. The two main characters, Jakan and his son Dovan, would have worked just as well as women, I think. But it's a minor point, and some of the older women are interesting - Megda and Hekja, for instance. And all the characters are realistic mixtures of good and bad impulses.

The plot gets a little contrived towards the end, or maybe it's intended to be allegorical or some such, who knows. It could have done with a slightly slower pace, too. There was a lot of Jakan's journey that was just passed over, and in no time we were back in the forest. I understand the author's desire to get to the climax, but the whole quest seemed all too easy, somehow. In particular, he found Varyd without the slightest bother. The final confrontation produced a few nice twists, but generally the outcome was very much as you would expect, with some unexpected magical events (close to deus ex machina at points) to help things along, and everything set up nicely for a sequel (although this reads perfectly well as a stand-alone).

It's not a profound book, and some of the 'you just got to have faith' and 'there has to be balance' messages were layered on with a trowel. As the author says: "This is not a book about good versus evil. This is a book about belonging, balance and belief." OK, we get it. It is also a very readable, straightforward story of one man struggling to do the right thing, even when he isn't quite sure what that is. I found it a great page-turner, with emotionally engaging characters, a heart-wrenching problem for them to solve and an intriguing, if not overly detailed, setting. An enjoyable read. Somewhere between three and four stars, but I'll be generous, so let's say four.


  1. Sounds nice and simple but I must be in the mood for such a book.

    1. Yes, it's a straighforward book, a nice antidote to some of the complexities of certain fantasy series.