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.