I’m not going to lie. I picked up this book for two reasons: the fantastic cover that gives you such a great impression of what you’ll find inside, and the part of the synopsis where it is mentioned that the king’s advisor is a cat. There you have it, that’s all I need to pick up a book by a new-to-me author.
HEARTS OF OAK
by Eddie Robson
Published: Tor.com, 2020
Ebook: 272 pages
My rating: 7/10
Opening line: The king glanced across his chambers and saw his morning letter had arrived.
The buildings grow.
And the city expands.
And the people of the land are starting to behave abnormally.
Or perhaps they’ve always behaved that way, and it’s normality that’s at fault.
And the king of the land confers with his best friend, who happens to be his closest advisor, who also happens to be a talking cat. But that’s all perfectly natural and not at all weird.
And when chief architect Iona wakes from a long period of blindly accepting the status quo, she realizes there’s a mystery to be solved. A strange, somewhat bizarre mystery, to be sure, but no less dangerous for its improbability.
And the cat is almost certainly involved!
This is the kind of book that starts with a small glimpse of something and then expands over and over again, revealing a much bigger picture than you’d first imagined. It follows two protagonists. Iona, a renowned architect who has designed a large part of the city’s buildings; and the king, who discusses current events mostly with his cat advisor Clarence and signs off projects for new buildings. It becomes clear very soon that this city is all about construction! Iona is an architect who teaches other architects. Most people seem to work either on construction sites or for companies providing raw materials to construct buildings.
As I read along, more things felt very strange to me. Seeing someone else eat, for example, is considered taboo, all the buildings are made of wood. And then there are the “dream-words” Iona keeps thinking of, words that she shouldn’t know but does, words that don’t describe anything that actually exists in the world but that are just there in her mind.
Things get going when Iona is at a colleague’s funeral and a man jumps onto the casket right as it goes into the furnace. As shocking as this event may be, nobody seems to talk about it, even the mysterious woman who asks Iona for one-on-one lessons in architecture. But Iona is determined to find out more…
This is where I stop talking about the plot because, as I mentioned above, a lot of things are revealed during this story and they are best discovered for yourselves, without knowing much beforehand. I love a book that is also a puzzle, and while this is not the kind of book where you can guess everything beforehand, there are enough hints here and there to give you a vague idea of what’s going on.
What I found great about this is how the prose just flows. The language is simple and straightforward, fitting perfectly with the setting and the characters. I can’t exactly tell you why, so you’ll just have to trust me. It’s not a long book but I flew through the pages at great speed nonetheless, because I never found a good place to stop. You always want to read just one more chapter, find out just one more tidbit of information, which makes this the perfect choice for a readathon book.
I was worried that I wouldn’t be as excited to continue reading once the big secrets were revealed but there is still so much going on after that. Even the very end still holds a surprise or two in store. And while the ending was left somewhat open, the conclusion reached is still very satisfying.
While I thoroughly enjoyed this book, there would have been enough there to justify a much larger novel. The world building was so intriguing that I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of it. It all made perfect sense and things fit together beautifully but especially when it comes to the background story (which is secret and you have to find out for yourselves), there was so much potential for more. But I guess it’s just not that kind of book. It is, however, so full of well-executed ideas that I will definitely keep my eye out for more of Eddie Robson’s fiction. And have I mentioned the talking cat? Cause there’s a talking cat! 🙂
MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good