Wednesday, 14 July 2010
‘The Bird of the River’ – Kage Baker (Tor)
Sometimes all it takes is one book and you’re a fan. This was what happened to me when I picked up Kage Baker’s ‘The House of the Stag’ a couple of years ago; by the time I’d finished reading I was a fan and hungry for more of the same. Life meant that I never really got round to getting into Baker’s other work and I found that I wasn’t really interested in her ‘Company’ books. ‘The Empress of Mars’ was a fun read but I realised that it was the setting from ‘The House of the Stag’ that I wanted to get back into and that wasn’t going to be happening in her sci-fi work (tracking down a copy of ‘The Anvil of the World’ as I’m writing this!)
Kage Baker sadly passed away in January this year but the flow of published work hasn’t stopped yet. I have a copy of ‘Not Less than Gods’ waiting to be read and I will eventually find out just what ‘The Company’ is all about. What really made my day though was the advance copy of ‘The Bird of the River’ that came through the post a short while ago; I finally had my chance to go back to the world of ‘The House of the Stag’...
What looks to be another new beginning for Elissa and Alder takes on a new meaning when their drug addict mother drowns in a diving accident working for the captain of ‘The Bird of the River’, a massive barge. Elissa is offered the chance to support herself and Alder by odd-jobbing on the barge as it makes it’s way up river. There is no real alternative but Elissa soon makes a home for herself and finds her niche as lookout where she soon proves her worth to the crew. Elissa finds that she can see a lot more than snags in the river and this will prove useful to Krelan, the young assassin who is using ‘The Bird’ as a means to accomplish vendetta. Where is the head of the dead nobleman? Why has there been an increase in pirate attacks along the river? And why has the Captain of ‘The Bird’ never set foot on dry land? All these questions are connected but only two of them will be answered...
Like I said a little earlier, I’m a fan of this setting (and Baker’s storytelling) so you might want to bear that in mind when you read this. Having said that though, ‘The Bird of the River’ is another example of Kage Baker doing what she did best, telling a deceptively gentle tale that is far more than it seems. What initially looks to be a rites of passage tale, on board a large boat, soon becomes a tale of mystery and intrigue as hitherto unrelated occurrences slide into place and make their connections clear for the reader to see. Nothing happens by chance on the river but Baker leaves enough unsaid to make sure that these connections don’t come across as contrived in any way. This gradual intrusion of outside events into the lives of the crew drives the plot forward at a decent speed (not too fast but not too slow either) as we see their reactions and get an idea of the danger that ‘The Bird’ could well be sailing into. ‘The Bird of the River’ is only two hundred and sixty eight pages long (at least, my advance copy is) but Baker makes good use of that relatively short space, drawing things out and then letting them go when the time is just right. This ‘ebb and flow’ effect also serves to drive the plot forward, in much the same way that the flow of the river drives ‘The Bird’ on to it’s destination.
Just when you think that everything fits together perfectly, Baker shows us that there are still a couple more twists to the tale; one serves to tie everything together even more tightly while the other hints at a wider world that will sadly never be explored further. In a ‘hint of the unknown’ kind of way though, this final twist/revelation serves to flesh out an already fascinating world and make it a place that the reader wants to spend even more time in. The boat trip takes the reader through a number of towns and cities and this gradual onward process reveals more and more about the world. By the time the story ends you’ll be surprised at how much you took in without even realising it.
Baker doesn’t just go for the ‘slow reveal’ though; when things explode Baker shows that she could mix it with the best of them with scenes that are as sharp as the blades on show. The climactic events are suitably climactic in this regard!
While all this is happening, Baker shows her readers how Elissa develops and grows as a character throughout the voyage. Baker doesn’t shy away from showing us exactly what it means to be newly orphaned and forced to make your own way in the world. This approach meant that I found myself really caring about Elissa and wanting to find out what happened to her next. Things may come a little too easily to her (she’s a little too good to be true sometimes) but Elissa remains a likeable character throughout and one who it’s easy to spend time with. The same goes for the other characters, to a lesser extent of course. ‘The Bird of the River’ is a thriving community full of memorable characters that stand out from the page.
As ‘The Bird’ sits at anchor, at the end of the book, there’s a real air of poignancy; both in the place where Elissa finds herself and in the fact that we will never be able to follow ‘The Bird’ on her next voyage. Like I said, I’m a fan and books like ‘The Bird of the River’ are the reason why. Engaging, captivating and ultimately bittersweet.
Ten out of Ten