Ian McDonald’s River of Gods is a complex, multi-threaded tale that takes place in near-future India which has been split into somewhat warring states. There is a water shortage as the monsoon hasn’t come in three years, a rigid caste system is in place, and political and economic strife is tearing cities apart at the seams. While the rich get richer and designer babies are common among the elite, there is a gross gender imbalance where men outnumber women by two thirds. It’s a complex, foreign, and unique world.
McDonald’s writing at times reminded me of a mixture of K.J. Parker’s dry, cynical humor and a dash of Peter F. Hamilton’s science fiction. McDonald is incredibly descriptive, and he seems to purposefully take a “no holds barred” stance with many of his scenes. He equally describes the good, bad and ugly sides of his world in shocking detail. This approach conveys that the situations McDonald discusses are multifaceted and it emphasizes the influence of culture and tradition.
River of Gods is full of everything. McDonald uses many aspects of Indian culture such as the Ganges River (i.e. the river of gods), India’s caste system, and arranged marriages. He even creates a third gender — nutes — out of India’s well-known and plentiful castrated male population. An asteroid that is older than the solar system and a mysterious extra terrestrial message add an extra layer to the story. McDonald balances commonly known cultural signs with new and unique science fiction gestures, making River of Gods an easy and interesting read.
Each chapter of River of Gods focuses on one to three characters. I can’t decide which kept me most interested — these characters, or the plot. Some of the characters are absolutely despicable, but each has such engaging dramas and it wasn’t until the end that I realized how they all fit into the plot as a whole. There were a few characters I wouldn’t mind McDonald dedicating entire novels to.
Potential readers should be warned that there is plenty of sex, language, and violence in River of Gods. Also, be aware that there is a glossary in the back of the book which will help considerably with your understanding of the culture and plot.
River of Gods is profound as it toys with holiness and divinity from numerous perspectives — from the perspective of the Krishna Cop’s “god gun” to that of the aeais who have overtaken the entertainment industry to the point where no one seems to notice they are virtual constructs rather than real people. Throughout the book, the question of “who creates the creator” is subtly asked, and River of Gods invites readers to find their own meaning.
FanLit thanks Sarah Chorn from Bookworm Blues for contributing this guest review.