The Harm Tree by Rose Edwards Book Review: A Dazzling yet Dizzying Debut

The Harm TreeThe Harm Tree by Rose Edwards, £7.99 (UCLan Publishing, 9781912979004)
Publication date: 19 July 2019
My rating: ½

The resistance is rising and dark forces stir to take back what was once theirs. Belief in the ancient gods runs strong—the sacrificial Harm Tree still stands.  Torny and Ebba are friends. Sent away by their families, they work together and watch out for each other. Too young to remember the war that tore apart the kingdom, Torny dreams of the glorious warriors of old, while Ebba misses her family, despite the darkness she left behind. But when a man is murdered on the street and Torny finds herself in possession of a dangerous message, the two friends must tread separate paths. These will lead them through fear, through grief, to the source of their own power and to the gates of death itself. As Torny and Ebba are used as tools for the opposing factions of the war, a deep power is ignited in them both. Can they uncover their own strength to finally heal the wounds of a nation?

Rose Edwards' ambitious debut is imagined on an epic scale, with a richly woven Norse-inspired history and meticulously constructed world. The cast of characters is no less developed; the plot follows two young friends, Torny and Ebba, with complex personal histories who come to play conflicting yet instrumental parts in the fate of their nation, Arngard.

Of note, Edwards writes refreshingly nuanced and trope-defying female characters who show different facets of strength and vulnerability in equal measure. While the narrative structure hinges on their distinctive paths and voices, I'd like to have seen more of Torny and Ebba's interactions, as their bond is touching and important. But there is much to admire here, not least a narrative that doesn't underestimate its YA audience by shying away from the complexities of war, love and loss. And then there's the beautiful, often lyrical prose. For example...

‘Under my ribs, the hook of my homesickness tugs me north. I wonder if this is what the gulls feel, flying back to their nests in the spring.’

‘At first there’s just emptiness, a gap in the sounds of the world. But then I feel a shiver going through me in the middle of that emptiness. Like the way whalesong shivers through the cliffs back home [...], except this is deeper, so deep it’s not a sound, and it doesn’t waver or change. I open my eyes. Fenn is beaming at me. “What is it?” I ask. Fenn says a word I don’t understand. He says it lovingly, like a beautiful name, or something he lost long ago. Aimi. “The world breathing,” he says. “My mother taught me to hear it.”’

Where The Harm Tree faltered for me connects to some of these strengths; the complexities of the plot and extensive cast of characters could veer into the convoluted, causing me to lose the narrative thread at times. Halfway in, I struggled to explain exactly what the story was about succinctly when my partner asked me what I was reading. This isn't a book to attempt over an extended period or if distractions are expected.

And, while I appreciate that Edwards avoids large information dumps, a pitfall common to the genre, there is much fantastical jargon here. I felt that some of the phenomena unique to the world of Arngard could have been given more context, particularly certain magical/supernatural mechanisms that weren't fully elucidated, which would've helped with fully appreciating everything as it unfolds.

Because many of the events propelling the story are on such a large scale, far beyond the scope of the protagonists, I was also sometimes unclear on Torny and Ebba's individual motivations and goals, feeling that they were reacting to a series of grand, important events rather than driving the narrative directly. As beautifully written and detailed as this was, this caused my motivation as a reader to flag in turn over the course of 500-odd pages.

It could just be my appetite for high fantasy waning in my crusty old twenty-somethings, but I found the sweeping nature of this book both a strength and weakness; while the writing and worldbuilding were impressive, I was more likely to feel lost than lose myself. For those of you who like your fantasies meaty, twisty and complex (of whom I'm sure there's no shortage what with the success of A Game of Thrones and The Priory of the Orange Tree), however, this could be the exciting discovery of a talented new voice in feminism-infused fantasy.

Note: I received a free digital proof copy of this book from the publisher for the purposes of a university assignment.


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