Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book review: The Bird of the River

Cross-posted from my Hardcore Nerdity blog:

Cover of The Bird of the River

Title: The Bird of the River
Author: Kage Baker
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: 2010

The Bird of the River is the third and, sadly, last (due to the author’s untimely death early last year) novel set in the fantasy world introduced by Kage Baker in her 2003 work, The Anvil of the World.

Baker’s fantasy world features two different (although both essentially human) races: the red-skinned, industrial Children of the Sun and the green-skinned, tree-dwelling Yendri. Also populating the world are demons and gods. However, the demons are not your evil, hosts of Hell type of demons. They’re elementals, given physical bodies (usually in a variety of colours and often sporting fearsome features like tusks) to interact with the world. Some are good, some are bad. None of them fear death because if their bodies are destroyed, they just go off and have a new form made. As for the gods… well, they’re rarely seen. But they are most definitely real.

Of the three novels in the series, Bird is certainly the most… the word I want to use is “gentle”. It’s not nearly as cosmic as the others. Anvil ended up involving nothing less than the fate of the world, while 2008′s The House of the Stag told the epic tale of the rise of the Master of the Mountain, the dark whom most demons serve. Bird, however, tells a simpler story, one about a sister and brother on a long trip aboard a river barge named The Bird of the River.

Eliss is a young woman, about 15 or 16 years old. Her younger half-brother, Alder, is a half-breed; Child of the Sun mother, Yendri father. However, he looks Yendri, which causes some problem around certain, less enlightened Children of the Sun. They live a nomadic life with their mother, Falena. Unfortunately, as the death of Eliss’ father, Falena fell apart, becoming a drug addict, and hooking up with a string of “uncles”, including Alder’s Yendri father. While never abusive to her children, she became unable to look after them adequately, forcing Eliss to grow up quickly.

Very early in the book, Falena dies in a diving accident, leaving the children to become members of the Bird of the River‘s crew. The crew are generally a kindly bunch and Eliss and Alder begin to fit in quickly, especially Eliss, who has a tremendous talent for observing detail and made a look-out (and nicknamed “Vigilance” by Captain Glass). Alder, however, is restless, longing to experience life with the Yendri, and perhaps find his father.

There follows a series of adventures as the Bird makes its way down the river, adventures made all the more, um, adventurous by a certain young man coming on board. A young man who is secretly an assassin, intent on avenging the mysterious death of a nobleman.

I loved this book. Kage Baker can literally have me laughing out loud on one page and then tearing up on the next and this story was no exception, from the young assassin’s self-effacing humour (laughing) to moments when Eliss realizes she may have to let her brother, the only family she has left, leave her and follow his own path (tearing up).

Baker’s writing seems effortless. Although she rarely uses the grandiose language often used in describing fantasy words, it’s easy to visualize the story’s environment. The dialogue is casual, making even the minor characters believable (with the deliberate exception of the occasional villainous-type).

And there’s a pretty good mystery amidst the human drama. I realized one page before the big reveal what was up and actually blurted out “Son of a bitch!”

So, to sum up: high adventure, genuinely funny humour, touching drama, all brilliantly executed. Definitely recommended.

(Okay, my first ever book review ended up being a gushing one. The timing worked out that it was a book by one of my favourite authors.)

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