This review is long overdue. Not because I’ve put off my writing of it, but because I’ve not actually found the time to read it. Meant to have this done about two months ago. Instead I trudged along chapter by chapter, and that’s no slight against the book’s ability to hold my attention. I’ve just found so little time to set aside between wedding planning, work, and reviewing my current lineup of TV shows.
The Tree of Water, the fourth in The Lost Journals of Ven Polypheme series by Elizabeth Haydon, is the first ever ARC I’ve received to review and was so graciously provided by Tor.com. That means the copy was an “Uncorrected Advance Reading Copy,” provided for an honest review of the content therein. My inner grammar nazi initially kept picking out typos here and there that nagged at me, but as I got into the ebb and flow of it all, I rarely even noticed.
Before I make mention of anything plotwise or other, I’ll stray from any strong spoilers ahead, just in case you wish to read the novel. This is, unfortunately for me, the fourth book in the series – a series I’ve never heard of, so I was wary of getting lost along the way. No such thing happened. Nothing that occurs within the course of the novel requires prior and/or greater knowledge of books past or the series as a whole. The events in previous installations are paraphrased and you never feel you’re lacking anything substantial while reading. It is a children’s novel meant for a middle-school audience, but is written at a level where older or younger readers need not feel excluded.
The idea behind the series as a whole is that the journals of an ancient explorer of all things magical, Ven Polypheme, (previously lost) are found and they contain untold truths from a past long forgotten. Elizabeth Haydon, the series’ author, refers to herself as the one who compiles the journals from mere scraps after much deliberation to unfurl and piece together the adventures held therein. Throughout the book we get snippets of the “actual journal” while the rest is written like your typical novel – so that all may enjoy the book, and still feel it lends true to the “source material.” I found this very creative writing.
But when we actually delve into the adventure, we’re not entirely clear on what the intended goal is – and neither is Ven Polypheme, a young Nain explorer, and his friends. Rather he is more in search of adventure than anything else, but his path becomes more and more clear as the story continues. In this adventure he wants to explore the sea after an invite from his merrow (mermaid) friend Amariel. And explore it he does with the aid of ancient magics and extra-natural/fantastical physics. Although there is nothing inherently wrong with adventure for the sake of adventure, having an end goal in mind from the get-go is certainly more appealing to the audience.
The biggest issue for me wasn’t the pacing, but the way our characters got from one chapter to the next. It was fine at first, and exciting, but when your characters are jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire and then back into the frying pan only to jump into a larger fire 20 chapters in a row, the gravitas lessens as the threats seemingly loom heavier. Where one chapter we have Ven and friends swimming away from three hungry sharks, and then the next they’re running away from a giant Megalodon shark, and the next chapter it’s a giant squid, and then a storm, or a dragon, etc. – the plot does get lost along the way at some point. And then there’s the issue that the characters are so unprepared for the dangers of the sea that they literally bring nothing to the table. There is no outsmarting they can do, or strengths they can call upon. Whatever happens, happens, and they’re just swept ever deeper into the sea.
Despite the structure of the plot, the underwater world that Haydon writes is very much a magical experience. She’s capable of bringing life to an unknowable world, changing physics to spice things in a way that I’ve never quite experienced in a book. Instead of talking, under the water everything thrums – sort of like humming a thought. This is both a wonderful tool, and a problematic one, as if you think or thrum too loud or too dire a thought it may come back to haunt you, you may disrupt sea life, and it could get dangerous.
Ven’s writing wasn’t my favorite for a main character, and I expect that has something to do with the unfamiliarity of his situation as a whole. But in conversations of importance he rarely finds useful information to contribute. Rather he has the annoying quality of only ever asking questions. And whenever he asks anything, he perpetually seems in a state of being stunned (or perhaps just some mild stammering). To give you some examples solely from ARC page 327, notice his side of the conversation:
“What — what do I have to do?”
“That’s — that’s it?”
“Can — can you fix it?
I have to say I really enjoyed the way the book resolved itself. Usually when a book drags, even slightly as this one had, I don’t find much to praise about the ending. But it was solid, and it made me want to read on further. I expect, from the way the beginning and ending played out so enjoyably on land instead of sea, The Tree of Water may be the weakest of the series, but I have nothing to compare it to. From what I’ve read, I can’t say it’s incited me to go out and grab the first three novels, but I won’t mind picking up where this book left off in the eventual book 5.