A Journey of the Heart

by Catherine M. Wilson

Cover image

Series: Women Were Warriors #2
Publisher: Shield Maiden
Copyright: 2008
ISBN: 0-9815636-2-7
Format: Kindle
Pages: 313

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A Journey of the Heart is the second book of When Women Were Warriors, which is the sort of series best viewed as an extended novel in three parts. One could, in theory, read this part without reading the previous ones, and the nature of the story is such that you could probably figure out what was going on, but the emotional arc would be lost. So don't do that.

The first book of this series, The Warrior's Path, was a very quiet and thoughtful story about apprenticeship and social dynamics. There wasn't much tension; Tamras made some quietly courageous decisions, and there were a few points where bad things could have happened, but the problems she ran into were mostly ones Maara, her warrior, could teach her how to handle. It was a gentle introduction with a surprisingly deep fount of useful observations about how to behave intentionally and thoughtfully.

A Journey of the Heart feels the same at first, but it becomes a much different sort of story. First, Tamras becomes far more deeply and quickly embedded in the politics of the house where she was fostered than I had expected from the first book. And then, the tensions in the first book that Maara and Tamras had managed to navigate turn dark and hostile in some sharp and surprising ways. By the end of the book, we see new sides of both Tamras and Maara, Tamras is growing into faith in her own decisions and her own certainty, and the stakes are considerably higher.

One of the things Wilson does best here is to show just how difficult and complex deep social division can get among a close-knit group with entangled relationships, and to do that without resorting to making anyone simply evil. There is a clear villain here, unlike in the first story, but not only Wilson but also the main characters go to some lengths to try to understand her actions. There's an open-minded searching for understanding, even when there's no justification, that's remarkably rare in this sort of book. It complicates the conflict, not allowing a simple good versus evil dynamic to form even when the path of the main characters is clear. This sometimes makes for painful reading, since it's so easy to see all the problems, suspicion, mistrust, and desperation and so difficult to see how to fix it, but it also makes all the characters feel very real.

I do have to add one caveat to that, though. While this series is not exactly a romance, it does have some of the romance tendencies, and one of them is to put romantic attraction at the center of most problems. Admittedly, love is a great motivator and produces a lot of emotional tension, but at times the story felt like it was repeatedly sounding a single note. The deep motivation for almost everyone seems to be love of someone else, even for the characters who are logical and careful on the surface. I can kind of see how this works thematically, but for me it undermines the realism; surely someone in this household draws their deepest motivations from, oh, personal improvement, or joy in what they do, or utilitarian analysis, or pride of tribe, or a delight in matching wits with someone else? If so, we don't see it in the story we get. The closest we come is emotional trauma and suspicion, normally manifesting itself in various other forms of love.

However, once one suspends disbelief around the uniformity of motive (if that even bothers one at all), the emotional arc the characters are following is deeply satisfying. This is a sort of coming-of-age story, but it's one that avoids the normal pitfalls of constant growth in power until the main character becomes the best at what they do. Tamras's primary strength is exactly the same strength that she's had from the beginning. She's just slowly becoming more herself, without gaining any startling new power or control. Wilson even weaves in a typical revelation of changed social status without undermining this or turning Tamras into a sort of chosen one. It's delightful to read a coming-of-age story that's so cooperative and so deeply grounded in community instead of the normal exceptional individualism. Wilson makes clear how many different people, with different skills and outlooks, are required to maintain a healthy society.

Maara's character growth as Tamras's mentor is also beautifully handled. The transition from mentor to relative equal is another challenge point for coming-of-age stories and is often sidestepped by either killing the mentor or letting them remain always stronger (but somehow unable to resolve the plot). Wilson takes a more challenging approach, letting Maara have weaknesses as well as strengths and letting the characters move into a position of mutual support in a way that's just beautiful to watch. While Tamras grows up over the course of this book, Maara in a way becomes younger. I thought the dynamic was quietly beautiful.

While A Journey of the Heart doesn't exactly end on a cliffhanger, and it's possible to take a break before the next book (I did, for example), you may not want to. The primary conflict is left unsettled and the characters, despite a substantial breakthrough, have only temporary breathing space. You may want to have the final book on hand.

Followed by A Hero's Tale.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-09-05

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21