Review: The Bird of the River
When a job goes fatally wrong for their mother, teenage Eliss and her younger half-brother Alder find themselves orphaned and marooned on the barge Bird of the River. The crew takes pity and lets them stay on and the pair hope to have finally found a ‘home’ that welcomes them. They’ve lived a rough and itinerant life as a result of their irresponsible mother: Alder is half Yendari, and Eliss has had to make up the difference when their mother was wasted from smoking yellow weed.
Eliss takes to sailing on the Bird as though born to it, and quickly distinguishes herself as a look-out, calling out the lay of the water as they travel upriver. One day while at port, a mysterious young man, claiming to be a lord’s son, seeks refuge on the ship. Then the Bird and its crew finds port town after port town in trouble from marauder demons wreaking havoc on the citizenry. And Eliss watches events unfold from her perch on the look-out.
I’d never heard of Kage Baker before EBR handed me this book, and it felt like finding a buried treasure. Then I discovered that THE BIRD OF THE RIVER was published posthumously. Fortunately, however, this is one of three books written in this same world, and Baker has a repertoire of a dozen others, as well as novellas and short stories.
Baker’s prose is lovely and simple, every word placed carefully (even the few instances of profanity), the imagery giving the story just the right tone. The pacing is consistent and works for the story she’s telling. It’s a pleasant and fluid read.
Eliss has never spent time on the river before, and as the PoV character we discover it through her eyes. And what a sharp and observant girl she is. This makes her an excellent look-out, but it’s also inconvenient at times as there are people on board with secrets to keep. The world around her is varied and fascinating, from the quite-real gods, to the ‘demons’, to the Yendari race who live among the trees, to the port towns and their individual quirks. She sees it all. At first she doesn’t really understand what it is she’s seeing, as she’s still coping with the loss of her mother, and experiencing what the world is really like for the first time. Eventually, though, she does understand, and it’s tempered with her increasing maturity.
Baker draws her characters with a deft and gentle hand. THE BIRD OF THE RIVER is the story of Eliss’ coming of age, and how she must not only forgive her mother’s trespasses, but also allow young Alder to learn about his father’s people. Krelan comes a little later, but plays an important role in helping Eliss to discover her gifts and that her life has meaning and value. I enjoyed Eliss and Krelan’s blossoming friendship, as they found comfort in their companionship, and are able to see each other’s strengths despite their flaws. The Bird‘s crew are a fascinating mixture of old and young, educated and coarse, mundane and supernatural.
The story begins benignly enough, but then there’s the mystifying demon attacks on the port towns, as well as Krelan’s assignment to find the murderer of his master’s son that leaves a trail of clues across several port towns. The story darkens, and like the characterization, the plot unfolds carefully, until they reach their final destination and everything culminates to a satisfying conclusion. But THE BIRD OF THE RIVER is not only an adventure-mystery. It’s a commentary on duty, prejudice, how wealth doesn’t necessarily equal happiness, and a host of other themes worth contemplating.
This isn’t a big, fat fantasy book. But it doesn’t have to be. While it’s perfectly suitable for a YA audience, adults will enjoy it too. It’s a thoughtful, enjoyable story about how just living one’s life is the best healing balm for loss.
Recommended Age: 14+
Language: A mere handful of uses near the end of the book
Violence: A little, and it isn’t graphic
Sex: Just shy of implied
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