Review: The “Heartfriends” Saga by Carrie Gessner

I really quite liked this epic fantasy series from indie author Carrie Gessner (who generously shared a copy of her work for review). There are some weaknesses, generally falling in line with what I would expect from a debut work of such ambitious scale. However, on the whole I found the series very successful in fulfilling even its lofty goals.

The first book, The Dying of the Golden Day, is in my opinion the weaker of the two books in the series so far. It suffers the most from pacing issues–the beginning of the book is quite slow, and it’s easy to become lost in all the worldbuilding. Gessner’s work suffers from the classic problem of epic fantasy: she wants us to know everything all at once, meaning that what is important gets lost and everything else gets confusing.

Nonetheless, that worldbuilding is supremely intriguing. For instance, the concept of “heartfriends,” which is the central unique tenet of this world, is something I’ve never heard of before (except maybe analogous ideas in fandom–which is a compliment, not a critique!) and certainly not thought through to such an ambitious extent. The religious system is also quite well thought out, as is the history of the world. An especial strength is that Gessner has clearly put thought into how these aspects would not only shape what people’s religions or cultural identities are, but also how they relate to these identities. This is a really interesting layer of worldbuilding that is rarely explored in fantasy.

I did feel the gender politics of the world could have been better thought through. For the most part, I really enjoy when fantasy series move beyond sexism as a plot device, and this series seems to invent an egalitarian society, which is terrific. I also really enjoyed the emphasis on deep platonic relationships between men and women. However, there were inconsistencies in this gender-neutrality that didn’t seem to make sense within the world, like the fact that men can’t use magic, that seem they ought to affect the society more. That’s really my only critique of the worldbuilding.

For me, the book primarily functioned as an exploration of that world. The plot unfolded slowly enough that I was not completely engaged in it, and the characters were not especially relatable. This is epic fantasy, and everything felt very epic, especially the people in this world, which isn’t the type of character I usually prefer. However, the worldbuilding is rich and interesting enough that I stayed engaged through any weaknesses this book may have had.

By contrast, a real strength of the second book, The Shadow of the Endless Night, is its intelligent and pithy characterization of supporting characters. Here’s an illustrative phrase: “Gwenold had become a soldier not out of a particularly strong sense of patriotism but simply because she preferred movement over stillness.” It’s a little funny, a lot insightful, and very efficient in letting us get to know this character.

The stakes at the book’s climax are really powerful, and they only work because of the complex and skillful worldbuilding. I won’t reveal what they are exactly, as that might rather spoil the story, but I did want to comment on how well done this is. So often, fantasy stories don’t weave the world into the story sufficient: it’s just a classic hero’s journey narrative dropped into an invented world. Gessner uses the world she’s created to tell the story, which is a rare achievement.

Throughout, this series really shines because of the quality of Gessner’s style. Her sentences are beautifully crafted, varied, and distinctive. The tone and diction are classic high epic fantasy throughout, but it never feels stilted or overwritten. I’m an utter sucker for an in-world epigram, which are done especially well at the beginning of each chapter: Gessner has a gift for creating just the right sort of pithy phrase. The only stylistic weakness in the book is that I found her action sequences too choppy and not engaging enough. Otherwise, it’s an exceptionally well-written series.

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