Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Review: "The Bird of the River" by Kage Baker

Unfortunately, my introduction to the works of Kage Baker comes with the posthumous release of her latest novel “Bird of the River” ($25.99, Tor).

The book follows the coming-of-age tale of a teenage girl named Eliss, who is caring for her addict mother and her half-breed younger brother Alder. Since the death of Eliss’ father, the family has moved from place to place, living with various “uncles,” some good, some downright nasty. In a last-ditch effort to save the family, Eliss manages to find a captain that will give her mother a second chance as a diver on the Bird of the River, a barge charged with keeping the river clear of snags and obstructions. But a diving accident leaves Eliss and Alder orphaned and having to find their own way aboard the ship.

Eliss adapts quickly, showing great skill at spotting the downed trees and boat wrecks from the slightest ripples in the river and becoming a valued part of the crew. Her brother, however, struggles with his identity among Eliss’ people and his need to discover the nature-loving roots of his Yendri heritage. Further driving a wedge between the siblings is the arrival of a young man named Krelan aboard the ship, who carries his own secrets. He’s a trained assassin, sent to recover the head of a murdered noble whose body Eliss’ mother discovered on her ill-fated dive.

As Eliss deals with her own problems, the world at large is being plagued by a pirate named Shellback and his gang, who may or may not be connected with the death of the nobleman.

Though it was preceded by a couple of other books set in this world, “The House of the Stag” and “The Anvil of the World,” newcomers need not be concerned about knowing the back story. Baker does a wonderful job of weaving information about the world into the novel, teaching the reader along the way about the culture and politics of the various cities and races.

In many ways, Baker’s storytelling in the “Bird of the River” reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien. The tale drifts along at a leisurely place, meandering here and there, but always headed toward its ultimate destination. There is action throughout the book, but it doesn’t move at breakneck pace from one scene to the other (at least not until near the end). It’s a story that doesn’t take the straight path, but it’s a much richer tale for that.

Baker’s characters make the book that much more engaging. Even relatively minor characters have their own aura and mysticism that leave the reader often wanting to know more about them. Chief among those is the mysterious captain of the Bird, who never goes ashore and keeps to his cabin and drinks heavily whenever the ship is in dock. If he doesn’t get his drink, strange and bad things will happen, but we’re never quite sure exactly what those are. I would love to read his story and learn the secrets that lie in the cabin. Sadly, that can’t happen.

At its heart, the book is a coming of age tale, but it does tackle some heftier subjects in its subtexts, including race relations, social classes and addiction. There’s also an element of mystery in the mix when it comes to Krelan’s mission, so the book should have a fairly broad appeal.

Bird of the River may be my introduction to Baker, but it won’t be the last of her tales that I explore.

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