The Bird of the River: Kage Baker’s last novel

Kage Baker 1. The Anvil of the World 2. The House of the Stag 3. The Bird of the RiverKage Baker the Bird of the RiverThe Bird of the River by Kage Baker

Eliss is a teenage girl living an itinerant life with her drug-addicted mother and young brother. Her mother, formerly a successful diver, now has trouble keeping a job because her drug habit has damaged her lungs, but she’s given a chance on the Bird of the River, a huge raft-like boat that travels and trades up and down the river on year-long journeys. Eliss shows some talent as a look-out, spotting blockages and snags upriver, and even her young brother Alder, who is half Yendri and has experienced discrimination before, feels at home with the more open-minded crew of the Bird of the River, so life finally seems to settle down… but everything changes when Eliss spots a snag that, upon further examination, proves to be a nobleman’s sunken pleasure ship — containing, among other things, the nobleman’s headless corpse.

The Bird of the River is the last novel by Kage Baker, who passed away earlier this year. The novel is set in the same fantasy universe as The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, but even though there are some references to the characters and events from the earlier novels, The Bird of the River can be read as a standalone without any knowledge of the previous books.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Kage Baker’s style was her sly tone and dry wit. Unfortunately, this is mostly missing in The Bird of the River. Instead, large chunks of the novel have an almost YA-like tone. In the first half of the novel, the story flows and meanders gently, much like the river on which it is set, and mostly lacks the edge that I loved so much in the author’s COMPANY novels, her other fantasies, and especially her excellent short stories. However, this apparent simplicity is deceptive, as the straightforward coming-of-age narrative also contains a dark, biting story of class and race discrimination that becomes more apparent later in the novel.

Many of the characters are usually too busy to reflect on their lives or be aware of the world outside of their small circle, but there’s actually a lot happening in this novel right from the start: Eliss’ brother Alder struggles with his racial identity, and Eliss herself slowly learns that there’s more to the world than the poverty and discrimination she grew up in. Right on the boat, there’s the mysterious Captain Glass (who gets staggeringly drunk every time the boat pulls into a harbor), the intriguing and elegant cartographer Pentra, and of course Krelan, the passenger who comes on board incognito to track down the nobleman’s killer. There are a lot of interesting things going on right from the start, but it takes a while for the otherwise very observant main character, who is still adjusting to massive changes in her life, to notice them.

Part coming-of-age novel, part adventure story, part social commentary, part whodunit, The Bird of the River is a charming, enjoyable fantasy novel that’s definitely recommended to readers who liked the author’s previous fantasy novels. Reading it, it’s hard not to feel sad that this is Kage Baker’s last novel. I’m sure she had many more great stories to tell, and it’s heartbreaking that we’ll never get the chance to read them.

The Bird of the River — (2010) Publisher: In this new story set in the world of The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, two teenagers join the crew of a huge river barge after their addict mother is drowned. The girl and her half-breed younger brother try to make the barge their new home. As the great boat proceeds up the long river, we see a panorama of cities and cultures, and begin to perceive patterns in the pirate attacks that happen so frequently in the river cities. Eliss, the girl, becomes a sharp-eyed spotter of obstacles in the river for the barge, and more than that, one who perceives deeply. A young boy her age, Krelan, trained as a professional assassin, has come aboard, seeking the head of a dead nobleman, so that there might be a proper burial. But the head proves as elusive as the real explanation behind the looting of cities, so he needs Eliss’s help. And then there is the massive Captain of the barge, who can perform supernatural tricks, but prefers to stay in his cabin and drink.

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STEFAN RAETS (on FanLit's staff August 2009 — February 2012) reads and reviews science fiction and fantasy whenever he isn’t distracted by less important things like eating and sleeping. In February 2012, he retired from FanLit to focus on his blog Far Beyond Reality.

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  1. I haven’t read any of Kage Baker’s novels, but I’ve enjoyed her short stories. I think I’d love her COMPANY series.

  2. The Company series is wonderful! Highly recommended.

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