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#SPFBO9 SEMIFINALIST SELECTION – HELIOTROPE by Palmer Pickering

Heliotrope

by Palmer Pickering

Genre: Epic Fantasy/Heroic Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery

Teleo is a retired soldier descended from Mages, who were cast out of power generations ago. After years of war and sorrow, he wants nothing more than to live a quiet life on his farm and work his stonemason’s craft.

His wife and daughter had been murdered during a war raid several years earlier and his young son stolen by the enemy side. He spent years unsuccessfully searching for his son and returned home broken-hearted. At the local castle, he comes upon a war orphan stolen by his side from the enemy and rescues him from abuse, adopting him as his foster son.

Teleo is working at the castle when he finds himself in the middle of a coup. This launches a journey to protect his new family, uncover the secrets of the ancient ways, and reclaim the magic of the Mages.

A cast of lovable characters:
Teleo – A gritty warrior who would do anything for you, unless you cross those he loves, then you will meet his blade.
Dinsmora – A reclusive herbalist who weaves shadows.
The fosterling – Orphan who forms a family and softens the toughest of hearts.
The animals – Characters in their own right who carry burdens and bring glory.

Magic:
Magic was outlawed generations ago but lingers in the blood of the kingdoms. There were good reasons it was outlawed and reasons it must rise again.

SPFBO9 – Our Reviews

Review by Isabelle from The Shaggy Shepherd’s Book Reviews

Heliotrope is a book that’s been on my radar for a while so I’m glad SPFBO gave me the excuse to prioritize it. It’s a beautifully put together book with a great map, some small illustrations, and artful chapter headers.

I read a different book by this author last year and I was stunned to see the difference in writing styles between the two. They both work well for their genre and story but I wasn’t expecting such a big shift in voice and was really impressed by that.

There are two major things to point out that the author did really well with this series: the world-building and the characters. Many times, I will like a book because of one of those things but Pickering manages to shine with both here!

The characters are very much their own people in terms of personality, history, emotions, and goals and aspirations. The story is told from the point of view of one character so his development is, of course, what we see the most but there is still so much to see for the other characters as well. Their growth and transformations based on experiences and other outside and inside influences (I don’t want to go into too much detail here and spoil something) were some of the highlights of the book for me. The teenagers especially stood out to me. Sometimes brave, sometimes moody, they had a great range of emotions, and I felt that they were well-written with their age and development (and the ups and downs that come along with that) always kept in mind. They could be unpredictable sometimes in ways that worked really well.

The level of detail that went into the world-building was incredible as well. It was really easy for me to picture the surroundings, especially the castles, which were a very fun part of the book for me. The way she included animal characters with such strong personalities themselves added to the charm of the world as well.

The different magical aspects were very intriguing. I loved learning about them separately as well as together with their contrasts and similarities. Seeing them influence the world and characters in their own ways was a fun aspect to follow. They felt creative without being too unfamiliar so she was able to give great examples of their uses without the danger of over-explaining things that would risk taking the reader out of the flow of the story.

Pickering’s writing skills really shine in this book. It felt like she knew exactly which details to include for the surroundings, feelings, and actions happening to make it sound absolutely beautiful. On an individual sentence level, I really enjoyed that.

On a bigger level though, I also sometimes struggled with it just a little bit. There were times where I was hanging on to every word and then there were times where my mind would start to drift away. I realized that the book worked better for me in small doses where I could really appreciate the details each time without getting weary of them.

Despite these beautiful details, all together, it felt like it took a really long time for things to start moving again after each major event in the book. I sometimes struggled to keep my excitement going until the next big thing happening and think this is where the book might lose some readers along the way. The main character also seemed really good at everything he attempted, which took a little bit of the excitement away after a while. I actually think that Heliotrope could make for a really good novella series if the major events were split into multiple books as both of my issues with this book would have less of an impact in that format, in my opinion.

Overall though, I think this is a really well written book that I’m glad I moved up on my TBR. I’m a big fan of the found family trope, which really shone here. The beautiful writing style and attention to detail has me looking forward to what the author will be writing next and I’m happy to recommend this title as a semifinalist to my team.

P.L. Stuart

I have provided an honest review of this book below for purposes of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) Number 9 competition in which this book is entered, and assigned to Before We Go Blog for judging.
“Heliotrope”, by Palmer Pickering, is one of those books which simply called to me, by name.
The cover was promised exciting battle sequences, of that classical, ancient combat variety, with a formidable looking female and impressive male character bedecked in armour in fight mode, side by side, gracing that cover. 
Knowing a heliotrope, as far as I was aware, was a plant whose flowers faced the sun, the title had me even more intrigued. 
The blurb promised great character work, and of course I lean heavily in my tastes towards character-based reads. It implied a slow-burn too – I’m there for it. I truly savour books that take their time, unhurried, not skimping on the details, to provide the reader with the story the writer wants to convey. 
And, to top it off, the book was a chonker. I do love hefty books. 
So, I was pleasantly NOT surprised when I ended up loving it.   
The story is centered around Teleo, a weary veteran warrior who is grateful that he has hung up his sword, seemingly for good. Teleo is far too acquainted with the horrors of war, having lost his wife and daughter to a vicious raid, and having his son abducted. To add to Teleo’s tragedy, the hardened but compassionate ex-soldier has searched for years, unsuccessfully, for his son. 
Besides the quest to find his kidnapped boy, Teleo has not been idle in retirement. He’s both a farmer, and a mason, and adores his trades, doing something productive with his hands, other than killing. 
And he’s not just any tradesman. He has powerful employers at the top of the nobility. 
However it is this fact that also complicates Teleo’s life. Because he has some frenemies amongst the aristocracy as well, that have the potential to pose lots of issues for him, and jeopardize his desire to lead a peaceful existence, away from conflict, blood, and death.  
But you just can sense, as the reader, he’s going to get drawn right back into the very things he’s trying to avoid.
After Teleo’s connections with the throne have garnered him a very special masonry assignment, things really begin to get turned upside down. Even as his kind heart compels him to take on an orphan who has lost his parents to war – named Jesum – as an apprentice, Teleo in time deciphers that the assignment from the Queen herself, involves Heliotropes, which hold considerable magical properties. Clearly the project is more than it seems, and could hold immense power, and danger.
But then again, so does Teleo. For his lineage links back to powerful Mages who have been long expunged from the world, but once dominated all. 
After an violent uprising motivates Teleo to flee with his ailing orphan apprentice Jesum, and another royal youth, Kaspari. Teleo’s seeking of sanctuary with his cousin Dinsmora begins a hunt for the truth, a return to magic, and an incredible journey of discovery, camaraderie, and immense peril.
If you’re looking for extremely in-depth and comprehensive characterization in a fantasy novel, stop looking, and just read this book. 
Pickering provides the reader with an all-seeing narrative style, where we come to know, over the course of the novel, essentially EVERYTHING about the primary characters. 
We don’t just learn their personalities, their idiosyncrasies, their strengths and weaknesses. We learn their backstories, how much they liked their meals, what they aspired to do in the near future…basically everything that could give a reader an extremely fulsome knowledge about a character in a fiction novel. 
Fortunately, for two principal reasons, this level of detail regarding the characters, I feel, will work tremendously for most readers. Why?
First, because the main characters are overall so noble, so highly likable, their relationships with each other so heartwarming, and their trials and tribulations so meaningful and impactful, you will become completely invested in them, as if they’re your own friends or family. That’s how the author made me feel about the characters in this book.
This is coming from a reader/reviewer who actually prefers his characters much more grey and morally ambiguous. Quite the accomplishment. 
Second, the biggest strength perhaps of the novel, how these somewhat disparate characters weave together and form an unshakable found family bond, sacrificing for and taking care of each other, will tug at the heartstrings of many a reader.
These characters truly GROW together, forged in the most dire of circumstances, and you will root for them unashamedly, fretting over if they are all going to make it out intact and whole, as a found-family unit. 
Teleo definitively fronts the cast, and he’s the kind of father you’d want raising you. His kindness, care and concern, dogged determination to take care of those he loves, and loving nature, makes him the kind of lead who you’d follow into the teeth of battle, willingly. The other characters are also extremely well-drawn, believable, and as I noted equally lovable. 
Let’s address worldbuilding. Stupendous. Forbidden magic, the use of which has been mostly lost down through the generations; dueling mages, taking flight, for spectacular aerial battle scenes; animals and other fantastic beasts (wow, the gryfalcon, and BLACKJACK!) who don’t just talk, but have fully-realized personalities like humans, and are loyal, hilarious, and readers will be utterly enchanted with; a magic system linked to masonry, heliotropes, summer solstice, and more, there was so much loving effort put into the wonderful world I encountered in this book. 
And Pickering doesn’t scrimp on her setting either. After leaving initial locations, Pickering takes the reader through the surrounding environs, as we encounter different and diverse cities, towns, inns, customs and cultures. I will sound repetitive with the phrase “fully realized”, but that applies here too. 
In terms of themes, yes there are political machinations, greed, ambition, but there are less superficial motivations and emotions explored, certainly, in terms of poignant aspects such as grief, and loss. But, as referred to earlier in this review, found family is the heart of this novel. If this trope endears you to a novel, then this book will surely wind up in your top reads of the year.
The action was more sparse, but when it came, it hit hard, and was thrilling. Pickering did a fabulous job of the build-up to those instances. And they were choreographed in cinematic style. There are also some very plaintive moments, that will make you deny you needed that tissue box nearby. As we care very much about our protagonists, their trauma, and eventual fates will affect us deeply. 
Let’s talk about the prose. Candidly, while on the whole it was exceptionally well done, there were some modern colloquialisms used that sometimes, for me, didn’t work as well, based on what I felt was the classic, epic high fantasy feel of the novel. But that was a “me” issue, and that didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment though. 
Traducers of slow burn books who want their action front-loaded and constant, will likely cringe at the combination of this book’s considerable length combined with the slower pace. But for me, the pace was just fine. 
Again, be prepared, the novel is about 800 pages, and with pace being fairly languid, you will be here for a while. This book takes its time, beautifully so, in my estimation. But not everyone will have the patience to see the entire story of a very long book unfold. Yet trust me, your patience, if you stick it out, you will be rewarded.  
As far as I can tell, this book is a standalone. So you can count on some resolution that you were seeking at the end of the book. While I prefer series, I felt very satisfied with how this book ended, as a self-contained story. 
In a time where I truly appreciate and have loved so many sub-genres in fantasy, there are times that a book with a true classic, “old-school” sword and sorcery tale feel, where we really get to the characters, the cuisine during the typical stop at the inn, what really makes the characters happy, we have talking animal friends that will never leave our side no matter how tough the world gets, where the funny parts will make you laugh and the sad parts make you tear up, just gives me that cozy feeling of an old friend coming to call. 
If a book like that is masterfully written, with great storytelling, has some sort of themes I can relate to, with characters that I can either gravitate to or be compelled by, I’m sold.
Heliotrope is that kind of book. Fans of Robin Hobb / Tadd Williams, I believe, will truly enjoy this one. 
I endorse “Heliotrope” as a semi-finalist for SPFBO 9.

SPFBO Score: 8 out of possible 10.

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