The Light is Fantastic!
“Fortunate is the man who has found wisdom and a man who gives forth discernment[…], It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and those who draw near it are fortunate” (Mishlei/Proverbs 3:13, 18).
The writing Tree of Life is an adventure in style as much as it is in subject. The book makes for a strong start to the coming series; doing a diligent job of slotting everything into place for later books.
My opinion of the books is rather positive. Why? Well, a good analogy might be that the story is rather like a sponge. It is whole and complete, everything is there waiting to be used and experienced by the reader, but…parts of it are dried and hard; in need of a bit of water and sussing out by the author. Interestingly, the novel progressively solves this problem on its own. It’s fascinating to read, from a technical perspective—but I won’t bore you with that.
My personal view of the book is overall positive. I rate it 5.8/7; a wonderfully confusing fraction that takes a bit of math to orient around.* As a result, I refuse to do the math, and will be giving it a rating of 5.8/7 across all platforms. It isn’t my fault that the maximum rating is five stars out of five and that my numbers don’t fit. Go complain to Amazon/Goodreads, not me. Anyway, on to the book.
What follows is a full length review, broken down for clarity and simulated objectivity.
The main character was Hesper, but there’s an issue. After the first act, Hesper takes on a supporting role and the focus of the action really shifts to her friend Cole. Hesper is simply excitement and quiet interest after this change. There is a hind of sublime femininity hiding within her that I’m hoping we’ll see down the line; and Hesper needs to yell at her husband more.
Cole is the other main character. His fade into the narration happens in tandem with his fade into Hesper’s life; quite an interesting, even scholarly, marriage of content and form. Cole is even more subdued than Hesper, but that’s to be expected since he is sort of the opposite of his brother, David, who I will touch on later (because he’s awesome).
Cole does, however, come of a little flat, as does Hesper later in the book. Perhaps energy was transferred from character to plot, or maybe he’s just more introverted. However, it is possible to make a strong, subdued protagonist, and it can play out very well if given a little attention. I hope that both characters return in later books rejuvenated to where Hesper was near the beginning.
Despite this, in many key moments Cole is competent and diligent, and like Hesper. Like her, he has an element of righteous indignation that is waiting to be unleashed against his ideological opponents. He doubts the system he grew up in, a system that even privileges him with a role and a title, and he stands up against it twice. I’m really hoping to see more of his zeal in later books. “I appeal to the book of light!”
The setting is new and interesting, and very much the “hard sponge” mentioned above. I won’t go into it, I’m sure the novel’s blurb and other reviews do a good enough job. In brief, there was a war in the past and now there are two leftover factions; the more tribal Unified, and the hierarchical Meros.
But—I want to know more! I need details, habits, customs, laws; when Cole goes to court to be a badass in front of Hesper, I want to know exactly how he’s arguing his position! What is the legal system? Is it the same as ours
Personal wishes aside, the setting is unique and never disorienting or overwhelming. I like a lot of information, but for those, the author has done good job of giving enough information to keep things moving smoothly. That’s something that can’t necessarily be said for most books of this genre. The writer never assumes you know something about her world, and so we never feel lost. Just that the exposition is rather conservative, or perhaps streamlined.
Let’s be fair, no book is perfect. I want to preface this section with this: I’d rather read the work of Mrs. Green-Hart than I would the work of certain great classical and contemporary novelists who will go unnamed. (Jonson, Dickens, Atwood, Gaiman.) However, even works I love; Pride and Prejudice, Donne’s Sonnets, Wordsworth’s Michael; even these have issues that can be revealed to help us better understand the text, rather than to reject it. It is from this perspective that I will criticize.
As mentioned before, the description of setting was rather sparse, and the conveyance of was inconsistent. We don’t get a lot of the more interesting information regarding the setting until near the end. There were also sudden shifts in the writing from one scene or situation to the next; an example being the two important deaths, which end up being sort of moved on from just a little too fast. Let us dwell and feel alongside the characters.
Finally, there’s a lack of explained foundation. It’s clear that a lot of work went into developing the world, but there seems to be chunks of information that’s either absent or assumed that the reader simply is not told. A little more accommodation for outsiders would be nice; for example, I wouldn’t mind knowing exactly what the hierarchy is, if there’s a leader or a king, how high up Cole and David are; anything of this sort, clearly defined, would be helpful to us non-Meros. Give us district names, Unified tribe names, a map maybe. Surely someone could lay certain things out for Hesper the outsider at some point, and we could learn along with her?
Have you ever read a writer’s first novel, and then move onto the second right away, and see a large improvement? And then their third one is even better? That’s what reading Tree of Life is like, except we get all three graduations in one book. Interestingly, these shifts all occur around the times where Hesper moves to a new location. Now, I should be clear, it isn’t abrupt, and would probably go unnoticed to most readers. Perhaps 70% of the writing stays the same, but it gets stronger, and the changes in style seem to accommodate to the shifting landscape. Content and form line up.
The beginning of the book, I didn’t really like the writing to be honest. It was hard for me to get into. Then it shifted when Hesper moved in with David to what was my favourite style overall. Things got smoother, and like David himself, the pace calmed. The floor of the novel was settling. When Hesper and Cole went on their mission, the style changed to something closer to a mystery or detective novel. There was a lot of collection of information, density of prose, and interesting action and chase sequences. It was a terrific way to end a novel like this.
Moving on to my favourite character, David. The man is a few wives short of a kingly harem, but he’s doing a good job of losing them one by one. This guy has one thing I always look for in characters from narratives of any sort, not just novels, and that’s character development. Hesper and Cole seem like pretty solid people with elements of their pre-existing personality waiting to burst out. David? He’s kind and considerate, but he also kinda sucks. Near the end, I wasn’t sure if he would remain as an important character in later books and I was on the edge of my seat. There’s nothing worse than a redemption story that the writer has forgotten about and left loose. Luckily, it looks like our boy will make a great return in the future. Here’s hoping!
Finally, since we’re on the topic, writing men. I’ve noticed this in almost all books. Men can’t seem to write women properly, and women can’t write men either, although it’s often done better than the reverse. They seem to get in about 70% right, and 30% kind of blank or off. The male characters in Tree of Life are definitely men; but it’s weird. I won’t get into my personal theories, but I’d give them 80% man, 20% tightness. There’s something tight with Cole and especially Jes; a closed off space where there should be a testosteronic urge for violence, action, and those things that men do when they are drunk or full of energy. David too (sorry man) doesn’t have the underlying sex drive that men struggle with; and he’s surrounded by women! Nonetheless, this is a more nuanced, and perhaps therefore minor point.
“Hope of Morning”
I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. As very vaguely mentioned above, things build up near the end, and even near the beginning, the novel was a comfortable read. I’m hoping we dive deeper into Meros culture in the future, and into developing Cole at least to the level of his brother.
Hesper also needs more screen time, and hopefully some handgun training. Women learn faster and shoot better than men, according to certain military trainers. She might as well take her side by Cole in whatever the future brings them.
I hope you enjoy the book more than you enjoyed my review.
You can learn more, or even get it here:
* 5.8/7 = 83%, a truly powerful entry into novelling.
See you around,