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

Kage 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.

~Stefan Raets

Kage Baker the Bird of the RiverIt’s hard to separate feelings of personal sadness at Kage Baker’s too-early death in January 2010 from one’s feelings reading her posthumously published novel The Bird of the River, emphasizing the book’s own bittersweetness. And it’s impossible, once done, not to mourn, in addition to the person, the loss of such talent. Bird of the River is in many ways a fitting final (or first final) book for the author.

The main character is a young girl, Ellis, who forced to be mature beyond her years in order to take care of both her mother, who is addicted to an intoxicating weed, and her younger brother Alder. (Alder is himself burdened by light of being a “greenie,” a half-breed human/Yendri). Ellis gets her mother a diving job on the huge river barge Bird but things soon go tragically awry, leaving Ellis and Alder alone. How they slowly, painfully find their way to their various places in this world is one plot line. Another begins with the discovery of a dead body in the river and the arrival of a sudden new passenger, a young boy named Krelan: who killed the dead man and who Krelan is are two of the book’s mysteries. A final one, and the last major plot strand, involves the recent rise in bandit raids on the towns along the river and what is allowing them to be so suddenly successful.

Set in the same world as The House of the Stag and Anvil of the World, but standing wholly on its own, Bird of the River is a gentle, elegant little novel (under 300 pages) that meanders as smoothly and easily as the river at its heart. The episodic nature of the plot, with the barge pulling into town after town, allows Baker to show us a variety of small cultures and examine both class and race in differing contexts. The search for the murderer and the constant threat of bandit attack lend a suspenseful air to much of the book. But the real beauty of the novel lies in its slow revealing and development of its main characters: Eliss finding her way to becoming perhaps part of the barge’s family, as well as a young woman who may be open to love; Alder’s struggle to find his true heritage in the half of his culture (his father’s side) that up to now has been denied him; Krelan’s true nature opening up bit by bit. The side characters are also lovingly depicted, each with sharply distinguished personalities, from the first mate’s young boy to the ship’s independent-minded female cartographer to my personal favorite, the mysterious captain who locks himself into his cabin with drink at every landfall, not coming out until they’re back on the water.

My only complaint, and it’s a small, infrequent one, is that as with Anvil of the World, the environmental aspect is a bit heavy-handed (and I speak as one who agrees with everything she says). A lighter touch there would have been preferred. And I suppose the murder/bandit mystery isn’t all that difficult (mostly because we’ve all read/seen far too many murder/caper books/films), but really, this isn’t a plot-driven book. It’s simple without being simplistic, quiet without being dull, elegant without being removed or aloof. It’s a slow, lovely ride down a meandering river that keeps opening up little by little, revealing not huge vistas but tiny beautiful moments. I was sad when it was over, though it ended as it should have, and even sadder at the thought that we won’t have the chance to return or read its like from Baker again. Well-recommended.

~Bill Capossere

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.

View all posts by Stefan Raets (RETIRED)

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