image from Goodreads.com
It has been a while since starting one of these recommend blogs. In reviewing the others, it seems I always pick up a book with hesitation. Tree of Ages is no different. While I was fascinated with the idea a tree becomes human (I have a love for plant stories and non-traditional sentience), I was worried it would be one of those “chosen one with amnesia stories.” We’d find out it wasn’t a tree becoming human but a human who became a tree and then returned human for— reasons. It’s a fantasy trope.
And Tree of Ages is about a human-ish character who became a tree returning to her original form with amnesia. So, if what I feared is true, why did I enjoy the series? First, because tree girl insists for the first third of the story arc she IS a tree and if she is not a tree, she prefers being a tree. It explores all the tree sentience vs human sentience desired, plus readers get to hear about tree superiority. I enjoy stories where human forms are not the default “best” choice. Through fantasy speculation of this variety, I think we invite conversations about different levels of humanity, and observing what may be just different instead of better or worse. It also creates compassion and likeness to the rest of nature.
Tree of Ages has a HUGE ensemble cast and all of them are developed with story arcs. There are fifteen characters I can think of just off the top of my head who connect with readers. Granted Sara C. Roethle has five books to make these connections, but she starts strong in book one with eight characters and she keeps adding.
I appreciated that the story in these pages was about characters. Yes, a bunch of action happens around the characters, but the action never drives the story, the characters decisions/desires/weaknesses move the plot forward. It’s refreshing to have a solid sense of place, history, and change while also allowing the characters to use personality to move forward.
Is the series perfect? No. I have conflicted feelings on how gay and bi characters were represented. Kudos to Roethle for including diversity of gender and sexuality. I loved how women were portrayed, but there are flaws in her portrayals of gay and bi characters. All of her gay/bi characters start off or remain villains. The one bi character is first portrayed as a lesbian and she falls in love with a male character as she “lightens” and becomes more of a good guy. I don‘t know this was intentional, but I recoiled from that effect.
A gay sailor dies in pain from poison in the swamps and he dies cursing the protagonist. This is sad because his death did not reflect his life. While we, the readers, had minimal interaction, it was clear he had longstanding relationships with two of the cast and he was developing a friendship with Finn, our lead. The bitterness he displayed in death didn‘t match his tone in life.
Aed’s daughter (whose name I can’t recall) appears to be a lesbian (she uses sexuality on both genders but her attraction seems to be fore women), and she is the antagonist for most the series. Even when she‘s not the antagonist, we have sympathy for her without ever liking her. She has a superiority complex and manipulates family and lovers in ways I find abusive.
Belinda, is the lesbian lover of Aed’s daughter and part of her guard. Her arc feels glossed over and rushed in the book, like Roethle couldn‘t figure out her motivations or place within the story. She becomes Finn‘s friend with ease, but she never connects with the crew on any side of the skirmish. She has the opportunity to form lasting relationships with five of the characters and never does, which leaves her an odd and floating in space character.
I’d overlook some of these messed up relationships but the straight counter parts are more healthy. There‘s the ever present annoying love triangle and there is a lot of unhealthy baggage with it. So much, I thought the characters would end up in a threesome (and note to writers, just add the threesome if that‘s what you want, don’t dance around it with a love triangle where everyone respects each other and is friends afterward). Having deep relationships with both people at the same time feels a little like exploiting each person since it lacks an open conversation, but each relationship makes sense and appears to have the right give and take. There‘s a marriage where the development seemed abrupt but over all healthy. The bi character‘s straight relationship is healing for her (which portrays straight relationships as a positive WHILE implying that gay relationships result from trauma so double bad). Even the villainous pair end up in what appears to be a loving straight relationship.
Overall, I recommend the series. It’s a series where the goals change as characters learn more and evolve, but where readers are always rooting for their favorites. I like that no one person’s destiny seems carved in stone and the cast changes rolls as the novels progress. I wish the inclusion of gay/bisexual characters was handled more mindfully, but there‘s so much unique going on in the series, I can still recommend it as a whole work.
Take Aways from Sara C. Roethle’s Success:
1. Women have a place in high fantasy and you do not have to make them special or otherwise justify their presence. Let male and female characters exist as they are without an exposition dump. (this applies to any “minority” character in any genre)
2. While a strong sense of place and world building is necessary to creating memorable and lasting fantasy environments, it does not have to drive the plot. Set the story, let it present options, but don‘t fight if your characters pick a third path the setting doesn‘t seem to offer.
3. Make your story about the character relationships. It’s not “wishy washy” for characters to change their minds, become heroes/villains in their own right, or to decide something they never would consider 100 pages back. So long as the change develops during those 100 pages it becomes a compelling full study of the decision along with the results that come from making certain choices. Write a complete story with a beginning, middle, and an ending. Be confident in your characters and larger world building. People will read more because they like what you wrote not because you left them on a cliffhanger.
4. Relationships can develop without a lot of angst or sexual tension. While there are problems with how Roethle portrays relationships like some of the people who end up together show what I consider friendship without the push to romance (this is bad because it perpetuates the idea that close relationships=sexual elements and that’s NOT true in real life or in fiction), she does a wonderful job creating loyalty and tenderness in her characters. As someone who skips sex scenes and rolls my eyes when there’s too much “attraction” build up in a story, I appreciated that she chose to skip it.
Wondering why Kindle Unlimited? Check out my post: 7 Reasons I read Kindle Unlimited
What do I want in a book? Here’s 9 elements I enjoy.
For further discussion on reviews try our “Would you Rather…” post that asks writers to pick between two different kinds of negative reviews. Or try Do Critical Reviews hurt me as a Writer? Or consider “9 Things that Make a Book Good (For Me), or “7 Steps I take Before Writing a Bad Review.”