Tree of Ages, by Sara Roethle, opens with Finn waking up, which is odd, since she’s a tree. Although now she seems to have arms and legs, and she finds the air is so, so cold. She tries to dig her feet in the ground like roots but it just doesn’t work. A kindly older man by the name of Aed happens by and takes her into his rustic cabin. He lets her stay a few weeks, until she’s gotten this being human thing down.
So now Finn’s gotten the hang of being human, but she’d still really rather be a tree, like she’s always been (and never mind those strange, misty memories of a time before being a tree that come up when she’s sleeping. Best to push those back down.). Aed has a friend who might be able to help Finn, and he’s willing to accompany her on a journey to find him. After all, she reminds him of his daughter, who left his home many years ago.
Once they’re on the road, they meet some other travelers at an inn who become their companions–Anders and Branwen, brother and sister scholars on a mapping expedition; and Liaden and Kai, a noblewoman and her manservant on their way to the Gray City. Oh, and Iseult as well, a taciturn sword-for-hire hired for protection by Liaden, and who seems to recognize Finn. Although that’s ridiculous, as until recently she’s been a tree, and was always a tree…wasn’t she? (Although how does she know how to speak then…never mind, push those thoughts down!) Soon, the seven of them are on their way through a wild landscape filled with eerie, not quite human creatures.
One thing I like about Tree of Ages is its use of Irish folklore. I don’t know a whole lot about the subject, but a trip to Wikipedia reveals that many of the weird faeries and creatures that pop up in this book do indeed have a basis in actual Irish legends. Maybe you know what boobries and merrows are, but I’d never heard of them! One particularly harrowing scene has the characters wandering through a faerie-inhabited forest, becoming separated as the various types of faeries trick and tempt them away from the path one by one. Names for people and places, too, are Irish Gaelic, or at least appear to be. I think it’s a great use of a language and a mythological tradition you don’t come across too often in fantasy books, and the inclusion of this dark Irish lore helps lend the book a moody atmosphere.
Another strength of the book is that the characters are fully rounded and full of surprises. In fact, nearly all the major characters have some secret or hidden aspect of their personality or past that comes out at dramatic moments. Several plot twists hinge on these secrets, so that just when you think you know where the book is headed, it takes a surprising turn.
There is a major weakness in the book, however, and that’s that it ends on a cliffhanger. It’s true that just before that, with Finn learns an important piece of news that helps explain a couple mysteries (even as it introduces new ones), but that revelation feels more like it should be the start of the climactic scene, rather than the climax itself. Roethle does provide the first chapter of book two in the Tree of Ages series, which picks up right where this one leaves off, but it still feels like a bit of a cheat that isn’t quite assuaged even by the inclusion of a bonus short story at the end explaining the origin of two of the characters.
So I suppose I recommend this book with one reservation. If a moody, Celtic-influenced fantasy set in wild, windy landscapes with surprising character revelations and plot twists sounds like something you’d like to follow for multiple books, you should definitely seek it out. However, if you’re not sure whether you’ll make it more than one book in, be aware that the first book does not really end in a place that feels like a finished story.