While Hearts of Oak isn’t Eddie Robson’s first novel, he’s much better known for his work in radio. In addition to creating the BBC Radio show Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully, he’s written a number of audio plays for the iconic Doctor Who. And indeed, the setting of Hearts of Oak feels like the sort of place the Doctor and his companion might end up in an episode: a unique, offbeat place with an underlying mystery to solve.
Iona is an architect. This is a very busy job, since her city is continually expanding, as well as replacing old buildings with new ones. Given Iona’s stellar reputation, it’s not surprising when a student shows up in her office seeking mentorship. But this student uses words that Iona’s never heard before and yet aren’t gibberish. Some unconscious part of her mind recognizes them, even if she has no conscious idea of their meanings. This, coupled with a mysterious death, makes Iona start to question some aspects of her surroundings. The questions build on each other until Iona uncovers a startling secret.
I liked the characters in this book. Iona’s earnestness as a teacher was endearing, and I enjoyed the partnership between the perpetually-bemused king and his talking cat Clarence. The initial stages of the story, where Iona is gradually becoming aware that things in the city aren’t as they appear to be, had a wonderfully spooky atmosphere. And there are some great, tense action scenes when the main cast have to escape from an antagonist.
Unfortunately, the excellent setup and middle sections of the book are undermined by an unsatisfying ending. While the physical and logistical aspects of the conflict with the antagonist were engaging, the villain itself was one-dimensional. I also felt that the resolution of the final confrontation was disappointing. I wish the last third of the novel had lived up to the promise of the first two-thirds, because there were some great elements there.