This River Awakens: Beautifully dark and very challenging

fantasy and science fiction book reviews This River Awakens by Steven Erikson

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This River Awakens by Steven EriksonThis River Awakens by Steven Erikson

Pretty much all you have to do is say Steven Erikson and I’m there. This River Awakens (2012) is far different from anything most people will think of when they hear the author’s name. It’s not set in a secondary world. It’s not epic fantasy. There isn’t a huge war or expanding empire in the core of the book. From what I understand, This River Awakens was Erikson’s first book and it’s more fiction and urban fantasy than anything else. While it is far different than typical Erikson, it is still glorious.

This River Awakens was re-released in 2012 after initially being published in 1998 under Erikson’s pen name of Steve Lundin. I love reading author’s works that are totally different from what I typically associate with them. I love seeing just what an author is capable of producing, and their offbeat books tend to show that so much better than the books they write to their already established fans. This River Awakens is nothing like Erikson’s epic fantasy books, but you can still see him in these pages. His writing is solid, flowing, lyrical, and atmospheric. His world-building is nothing short of stunning and his characters are deliciously complex. This is true Erikson.

This River Awakens tells the story of twelve-year-old Owen, who moves to the countryside with his family. Owen is younger, which makes this book, for the most part, a rich and emotional coming-of-age tale. Owen makes friends and enemies, like any kid does. He has good times and bad times. Parts of his life are great and other parts suck. He’s just a confused kid trying to make it through those pukey years we all remember. Despite the fact that this is Erikson’s first book, the characterization is reminiscent of the author’s epic fantasy. Owen is painstakingly developed. He’s well rounded and raw, which makes him engaging and believable. Erikson doesn’t shy away from the dark and light parts of his characters, even his younger ones. This might make some readers uncomfortable, but his ability to shine a light on the complexities of the human psyche is fantastic. Furthermore, the excellent characterization doesn’t stop with Owen. Erikson spends plenty of time developing the supporting cast as well.

There is a haunting quality to the rural Canadian countryside where Erikson sets his tale. Once Owen and his friends find the body of a very large man floating down a river, the location seems to take on a life of its own and fantastical elements are inserted into the tale. The fantasy works well with the location and atmosphere to create something entirely new and believable within the context of the book. This is one of those books where the world becomes as much of a character as the people who pepper the novel. Erikson’s writing infuses This River Awakens with intense atmosphere. This makes the events that transpire seem so real, and will help the readers feel emotionally engaged in the characters. This also makes the struggles between light and dark, childhood innocence and adult reality, so absorbing.

This River Awakens is dark and even, at times, rather ugly. This could easily be “too much” to some readers, so be warned. In fact, a lot of what happens in this book can be stomach-churning. I can tolerate a lot of dark, but this book did disturb me at times, and that fact alone shocked me. It also says something for the realism of Erikson’s writing. For example, a girl is raped by her father, a woman is battered by her drunk husband, kids find the rotting body of a giant, and more. This is a very disturbing book and readers should be aware of that. Yes, it’s coming-of-age, and yes, there is some light, but it doesn’t balance the darkness and Erikson’s writing and atmosphere can make the darkness seem so much more intense.

Unfortunately, This River Awakens also has a slightly bloated feel. The plot is so slow moving at times that it feels like you are stuck in cement. The writing, the Erikson feel, and the rich characters don’t make up for this. While readers who stick through to the end will be richly rewarded, it is a hefty tome. If Erikson had cut the length a bit, and perhaps moved the plot forward faster, the dark aspects of it might be a bit more tolerable. That being said, it really says something for the author’s first book that readers can and do manage to read the entire thing despite the ugly bits and ponderous pace.

This River Awakens is a raw, visceral coming-of-age story and absolutely unlike anything I’ve ever imagined the author could, or would, write. It’s a haunting tale that will stick to you like glue once you finish it, though you might have to work a bit for that reward. This River Awakens has its share of problems, and it’s definitely not for everyone, but despite its issues, it is fantastic. It shows just how versatile Erikson is as an author. Ponderous pace be damned, this book is pure art — beautifully dark, very challenging (in more ways than one) art.

This River Awakens — (2012) Publisher: A time to escape. Twelve-year-old Owen Brand and his family move to Middlecross, a riverside town in rural Canada, hoping to leave poverty and unhappiness behind. A time for innocence Owen meets three local boys, and they soon form an inseparable band. Over the summer holidays they create their own world, a place apart from the adults who watch over them. Owen also grows close to Jennifer, a fascinating but deeply troubled girl. And a time to grow up. Then the gang stumble across a body in the river — a discovery with unimaginable consequences for them and the town, from which there is no going back.

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SARAH CHORN, one of our regular guest reviewers, has been a compulsive reader her whole life, and early on found her reading niche in the fantastic genre of Speculative Fiction. She blames her active imagination for the hobbies that threaten to consume her life. She is a published photographer, world traveler and recent college graduate and mother. Sarah keeps a blog at Bookworm Blues.

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One comment

  1. Kevin S. /

    Sounds similar to A Boys Life by Robert McCammon, which is one of my all-time favorite books. I’ll add it to my TBR list!

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