Heart of Mist is the first book in a series and it’s important to keep that in mind while you’re reading. The story doesn’t seem to build to a climax where you might usually expect it to, but the ending was an a’ha moment for me, bringing so many threads together and perfectly setting up the next part of the story.
Unlike the first Harry Potter, for example, which has a defined plot within the wider story, Heart of Mist doesn’t work as a standalone book, and I don’t say that negatively, especially given the cliffhanger ending. I came to understand that this is a very long Act I, and it wasn’t until I worked that out that I was able to appreciate the intricacies of the world that Helen has built. I think if you go into this book with an understanding that this is part 1 of 3, you will be able to sit back and enjoy the ride, and have faith that everything will come together in its own time.
Heart of Mist follows Bleak, the village misfit and a raging alcoholic, as she’s arrested and transported to the castle at the King’s behest. In a country where magic has been outlawed and an ominous poisonous mist is slowly enveloping the land, Bleak’s magical abilities mean she’s a far more valuable commodity than she realises, especially when the King’s sworn enemies, the Valia Kindred, discover her power.
Heart of Mist is told from multiple points of view, and not only are we along for the ride to the castle with Bleak, the captain of the King’s army, and the queen of the Valians, but we get glimpses of what is going on at the castle through the eyes of 10 year old Dash, the stable master’s son, who has and intriguing plot of his own. Sometimes I find myself drawn to particular POVs in books that switch between characters, but I enjoyed each part of the story told through different eyes.
The characters are complex and something Heart of Mist does really well is avoid info dumps. We are learning about the world and the characters the whole way along, with little details revealed here and there. As I said earlier, this can seem tedious if you’re waiting for the action, but if you are a high fantasy lover like me, you’ll enjoy the world slowly unfolding.
Another thing I loved about this book was how the side characters were well-rounded and lovable. In fact, I’d say I fell more in love with the secondary characters than I did with Bleak, Swinton or Henri. Bleak’s friend Bren is the loyal cinnamon roll, Captain Swinton’s second-in-command, Fiore, is delightfully thoughtful and moral, and the young Valian, Luka, is passionate and intelligent. Even the characters we only see a few times are more than just names on the page, they have substance. Young Dash and the princess Olena are too cute for words, and their storyline is one of the most intriguing.
Probably the only criticism I have of Heart of Mist is to do with the names, of both characters and places, and it’s two fold. Firstly, there seemed to be enough of a mix of ‘fantasy’ names and ‘normal’ names that it sounded odd when you heard them together. An example is Henri’s guard: Athene, Tilly, Petra and Marvel. I think because the origins of these names (or how they sound at least) are so vastly different, they don’t fit together and that did pull me out of the story at times. Similar with Dimitri, Henrietta, Zachary, Clara, Caleb, and even Luka; they are names that are familiar, but they don’t have a common link. Then you have your fantasy sounding names like Allehra, Lyse and Olena. The mix of names could be jarring at times, and blur the line between the fantasy world and our own.
The second thing to do with names is the names of places (and occasionally people and objects) that were used without explanation. The place names suffered a little in the way that character names did, with common names like Hawthorne Ranges, alongside made up places like Battalon or Qatrola, which serves to throw you out of the world for a moment as you’re reading. But something that I found confusing was names being used without then explaining what they were. When Bleak was travelling with the King’s army, names of places were mentioned and then nothing further about them. I did notice a few times that Helen did describe these places later in the story, especially toward the end when things are coming together, but because I didn’t know it was coming, I was frustrated in the moment not knowing who or what these things were.
However, the names are a minor issue and were far outweighed by the fun characters and the beautiful world. Speaking of the world, I found the settings so rich and the descriptions were detailed without being long-winded. The Valian forest is like a natural city, with treetop bridges and dwellings. I could practically hear and smell the forest around me while I was reading on the train. I also liked the seaside town of Angove and how Bleak’s love of the ocean highlighted her difference from the Valians. The maze in the castle grounds was also deliciously creepy and I can’t wait to find out more about it in the next book.
Helen’s writing is in the sweet spot for me. It’s not flowery, and is thankfully light on the metaphors. There is enough description without getting boring, and the backstory is dotted throughout the book, rather than told with the introduction of each character, which is a pet peeve of mine. There are a lot of modern terms and phrases used throughout the book, one that jumps to mind is Mother Matriarch, and while that might not be in keeping with the fantasy world, it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the story. Actually, it was one less thing I had to stop and think about, as the phrases used were familiar to me. I thought the dialogue was mostly great too, even if Helen did have her characters say things that were on the colloquial side. Bleak was a particularly whiny and stubborn character, but her annoying traits are balanced by the cast around her, and we get a reprieve from her with the different POVs.
I enjoyed Heart of Mist, especially the last third of the book, and I can’t wait for book 2: Reign of Mist. I’m giving this one 4 stars.