“Winter is a white wolf with frost on its breath, and a thick coat that darkens the sun.”
So begins The Harm Tree by Rose Edwards. Her writing is gorgeous from the opening lines, and it hooked me straight in.
Torny and Ebba work together and live together in the wayhouse. They come from different places with different legends, and different ways of looking at the world, but they are united in being away from their homes. They have become close and have a beautiful friendship, always looking out for each other, even if they don’t always understand each other. Their friendship, and the power of it, was my favourite thing about this novel.
The two do almost everything together, until a stranger arrives and changes everything for them. Torny meets the stranger in the streets, he throws her a locket before he is captured, killed, and hanged up at the Harm Tree. Before he dies he refers to the Staff Bearers, the stuff of legends, which captures Torny’s interest (and mine), and draws her to the stranger and the tree. She takes a lock of his hair and his luck, and promises to complete his task. But Torny isn’t the only one with an interest in the locket, and she soon finds herself leaving home in search of something the Stranger needs, and in the company of someone who knew him when he was alive. The stranger may be dead, but he is controlling and remarkably powerful, and Torny has no choice but to do what he wants of her. Her adventure draws her home to someone Torny thought she could trust, but in this new world, everything is different, and she finds herself in an increasingly dangerous situation that threatens to destroy everything she knows about herself. It is tense, and terrifying, and everything you want from an adventure.
Ebba finds being away from home harder than Torny; she is hideously homesick and wants nothing more than to be back where she belongs. She works hard and performs for the rich men who visit the way house, earning a reputation for the salve she uses to heal people (a recipe from her home and her mother). It is doing this that captures the eye of Prester Grimulf, a leader of the new religion, who takes Ebba away to become a symbol for him. He wants her to a symbol of the White Lord whose religion he preaches, and for her to offer healing and redemption to the heathens who believe in the old gods. He is not a nice man. He decrees that true believers must walk through a literal fire to cleanse themselves and he is determined to make an obedient symbol of Ebba, alive or dead. Fortunately, Ebba finds a friend amongst the Prester’s retinue, who helps her to survive. Ebba is a wonderful character, she is so brave and has such a strong self of herself and what she believes to be right, which makes for a gripping story when she is taken by a man who wants to change her.
Religion is a huge theme of this novel; it is a battle between the old religion with its legends of the Harm Tree and the Sungiven and the Prester’s new religion of the White God who has come to save them all. The religious beliefs, stories and legends in this book are brilliant. The battle between the old ways and the new is perfectly explored, and I loved the way the story tackled these huge issues,
The legend of Bloodnight (or Arnsnight as it is known by some) is one of the most important in this book, and my favourite. For those who believe in Arnsnight, it is a celebration of feasts and joy. For those who call it Bloodnight it is steeped in sacrifice and suspicion, the belief that:
“The land can be renewed, redeemed. But for that to happen, in the ninth year on the ninth night of winter, the lord of the land must die.”
Bloodnight requires a human sacrifice to be given to the Harm Tree. Ebba’s journey and the reach of the White Lord’s new religion take her home for Bloodnight and Ebba is faced with some horrific scenes, difficult decisions, and the fact that her best friend might be about to unwittingly cause the end of the world. Can their friendship be the thing that saves it?
You’re going to have to get your hands on a copy to find out. The Harm Tree is so big, and its story so involved, that no review I write could ever do it justice. It is an epic, almost-world-destroying adventure, that hinges on two young girls and their friendship, and I cannot get enough of it.