HOW I RATED IT
4/5 I found my personal enjoyment of this to be a little all over the place during my reading experience for a variety of reasons. Ultimately though, I've decided that this is a really worthwhile read for the right audience.
To the character-driven readers out there, this one is for you. In the absence of a clear narrative through-line, a lot of weight is placed upon the characters and while I don't love books that do that, I think the characters largely rose up to the challenge of carrying the book on their shoulders. The story is mostly told through the perspective of Teleo, a former soldier who now makes a living as a stone mason. His artistry brings him to work a project for the royal family of The Verdant Valley where he comes across a young princess who's been disguised as a prince her whole life and a young "Hill Boy" who serves as a captured slave. Events lead both of these youths to leave the palace with Teleo as they all flee for their lives. They meet up with Teleo's cousin Dinsmora who is an adept practitioner of magic and together they form a sort of found family as they uproot their lives in search of asylum from the dangers that follow them. Each of the four main protagonists brings a lot to the table. Teleo serves as a deeply compelling main characters. His warm disposition is juxtaposed by a much more brutal side that comes out whenever he is in combat. He also contends with a deeply tragic past filled with loss and heartbreak. Dinsmora, while perhaps not as traumatized, has chosen a life of relative solitude from others given the dangers of using magic. I found her motivations and goals to be really interesting and admired the love and care she shows towards Teleo and the children. Jessum and Kaspari are easily the most interesting members of the supporting cast. Jessum remains gentle and sincere despite years of cruelty, loss, and abuse at the hands of his captors while Kaspari was born into privilege and yet lived a life of captivity in her own way, especially given her disguised identity. I appreciated that these two quickly formed a bond instead of there being some kind of cliché princess and pauper antagonism between them that softened over time. I also enjoyed the dynamic they both shared with Teleo as well as Teleo's familial bond with Dinsmora. The role that Sigurd plays later in the story was also super interesting. The bonds that all of these characters shared were so wholesome and I think it was this aspect of the book that really kept me going even when I wasn't as jazzed about the plot's momentum.
The various people that the party meets along the way are a mix of authentic individuals though some are definitely more memorable than others, which is largely to be expected in this type of novel. I will say that the way Pickering handles animals felt so lifelike. I am no expert in horses or sheep, but it felt pretty clear to me that the author knows her stuff here. I wouldn't describe these as "animal companions" in the same way that a Disney hero will have an animal sidekick. These creatures don't talk, they're just regular animals, but in some ways they do take on unique character traits similar to how animals do in real life. Their personalities are subtle, yet the story would absolutely not have been the same without them.
I think where I struggled the most with this story is that the narrative didn't really have a strong forward pull for most of the book. We begin with an introduction to Teleo and there is some initial intrigue as he witnesses the abhorrent treatment of the young Jessum. This initial subplot was really interesting to me and then things get even more intense when a coup rocks The Verdant Valley and our heroes find themselves on the run. Along the way, there's lots of worldbuilding expertly woven into the journey, but eventually the gang settles down and that's kind of where my interest wavered. It's not so much that the events were boring or anything, I think I just need a stronger sense of momentum and direction when it comes to a narrative. I think the point of Heliotrope isn't really to tell a high-energy, blockbuster-style story. It felt more like the value of this book is in spending time with the characters, watching them grow as a family, and face the various points of conflict that they confront along the way. There are still some moments of intense action though. The stunning battle imagery depicted on the cover isn't just for show, there are some pretty epic action scenes, it's just important to know that this isn't really the main focus of the story. It's also worth mentioning that a lot of these sequences are clustered in the first and final acts. I have never read a Robin Hobb book, but based on how her work has been described by fellow book lovers, I'd be willing to bet that fans of her work would really click with HELIOTROPE. In terms of my personal tastes, I strongly prefer when character development is more balanced with narrative focus, but I can still appreciate the story that we got here even if it takes a back seat to the character work. It is also worth noting that the prose is extremely descriptive. As someone who's really visual, I typically appreciate detailed depictions of characters and scenery, but I will say that the degree to which things are described in this book was a little much even for me at times and that may have contributed to my overall impression of the narrative moving slowly. Where the extreme descriptiveness actually made things feel more intense though were whenever a character was dealing with a wound or injury of some kind. This added a degree of realism and stakes that would not have been present otherwise and things felt believable enough where I had to wonder if maybe the author has some knowledge of first aid and/or military medicine.
In some ways, the world of HELIOTROPE is a fairly standard medieval fantasy setting. There aren't any magical beings, there's no alien races or fauna, and the way that the various kingdoms are set up will feel reasonably familiar. Where I think things start to get special is in the way that magic works in this world. There are layers of intrigue when it comes to the various forms of magic as well as where said magic comes from. The titular heliotropes scattered throughout the world are one important example, but I enjoyed that magic could come from things like precious gems, enchanted embroidery, and even enchanted wool. Things never get quite as crazy as say, a Sanderson novel, but it was all fascinating to learn about and the way that the magic factors into the story's final acts felt appropriately rewarding. Even though the politics aren't anything too terribly innovative, I think the fact that the characters were so interesting, made this aspect feel more compelling as well. Even some of the more hate-able characters were still fascinating in their own, twisted way. I think it would have been nice to learn a little bit more about some of them, but that probably would have contrasted a bit strangely with the wholesome bonds being formed among the protagonists. The landscape itself is also more interesting that it might initially seem. The hard-to-get-to location that the characters hide away in for a while, the prosperous Verdant Valley, the dystopian Sapphire Valley, and the rural home of the hill folk were all steeped in rich history. The lands felt alive in a way and the presence of magic in each realm added a layer of intrigue to the otherwise mundane geography.
The narrator for the audio edition of this book is clearly a seasoned audio professional. Everything is clean and crisp and the prose is expertly recited. All of that said, I think that for some reason, it also didn't fully work for me. I think the slow, almost-cozy style of the performance was probably a good fit for the story, but it also furthered my impression that things were moving too slowly. At the risk of sounding a bit ageist, I also just felt like the narrator's voices for some of the characters didn't sound quite right. While he did a great job with Teleo and other more mature characters, younger characters like Jessum all kind of sounded the same and the delivery of their lines felt far more weathered and weary than what someone so young would reasonably sound like even with the hard lives they've led. If this was a shorter book with a smaller cast, then I think I would have taken less issue with all of this. Those who love experiences where it feels like your grandfather is telling you a story will likely enjoy this much more than me. I again, don't have anything against the narrator. I could see myself really liking his work in a shorter, more intimate type of novel, but in this case, I did feel like the listening experience lessened my enjoyment of the story somewhat.
Overall, I probably enjoyed this one a little bit less than others that I've rated with 4 stars, but I definitely liked it more than those I've rated as a 3. I have done half stars in the past, but I just don't feel like those are super helpful and I think this was closer to a 4 than it was a 3. I do think that readers who like richly descriptive prose that focuses on getting to know characters in an intimate way and spending a lot of time with them as they live their lives and form relationships with each other will almost certainly love this wholeheartedly. If you're looking at the cover and thinking that this will be a non-stop action romp, then you will want to adjust their expectations, but I also think there's a good amount of value here for any type of reader as long as you can go in with an open mind.
(+) Teleo is a fantastic protagonist
(+) The secondary characters were all compelling and endearing
(+) Fascinating magic system(s)
(+) Some brutal and bloody action scenes
(-) The lack of forward momentum for much of the book resulted in my interest wavering at times
(-) The narration didn't fully work for me and probably made the middle sections of the story tougher for me to get through.