Hearts of Oak starts with a king, an architect, a magically growing city, and a talking cat, and, somehow, it manages to keep these pieces at it’s (oak) heart, even as the story itself expands and changes. What starts as a tender, character focused fantasy about an ever-growing city shifts into a very different story mid-way through. The result is a beautifully clever genre-bending experience, with a story that is part whimsical fantasy and part provocative science fiction.
The themes present in Hearts of Oak sit just below the surface of the story. This isn’t a SFF novella that spells out it’s themes, and I appreciated that change from other short fiction I’ve recently read. That being said, there’s commentary to be gleaned here regarding themes of identity, memory, sacrifice, and community. Most importantly, I think, though, is the overarching theme of what it looks like to have a society obsessed with constant improvement, continuous work, and expansion for expansion’s sake.
This novella is complex, and the characters are so well defined for it being a shorter work. I found Iona (the architect) very relatable, and enjoyed her narrative perspective a lot.
Because of its whimsy, intrigue, and genre-bending nature, I think Hearts of Oak is a great novella for both fans of the genre and for readers new to science fiction. This novella knocked my socks off, and it easily gets 5 stars from me. I can’t wait to see what else the author, Eddie Robson, writes in the future.
Thanks to NetGalley and Tor.com Publishing for providing me an eArc of the book. Hearts of Oak comes out on March 17, 2020.