Riverkeep – Martin Stewart
2nd May 2016, 368 pages, 4/5 stars
The cover of the reading copy from which I read this story compared it to the likes of:
- Neil Gaiman
- The Wizard of Oz
- Patrick Ness
- Philip Pullman
- Moby Dick
- Charles Dickens
I was confused! What is it that all of these have in common? How could any single book have links to them all? Well, I’ve found it. I didn’t expect it to, but Riverkeep certainly lived up to these claims.
Fifteen-year-old Wulliam is preparing to take over his father’s role as Riverkeep, tending the river Danék and fishing corpses from it. Just days before his sixteenth birthday, Wulliam’s father is possessed by an evil creature. Wulliam isn’t ready to tend the river by himself, and so he sets out on a journey to find a cure for his father.
Along the way he meets a whole horde of interesting characters. Tillinghast was my favourite – he’s an homunculus, a man made of straw. (This is obviously where the Wizard of Oz comparison comes in!) Tillinghast provided much-needed comic relief, but his own journey had an important message at its core. I also loved Mix, the tough-as-nails stowaway Wulliam finds on his boat after being robbed. And then there was Remedie – I’m still confused about who she was exactly; a sort of hedge-witch who is trying to bring her baby back to life. All of these people are running from something, and occasionally their past gets in the way of their journey! (Most specifically in the form of a mandrake, which Tillinghast steals very early on….)
The Moby Dick reference comes in the form of a giant magical eel-like creature, the mormorach. This creature has magical properties which will help Wulliam to heal his father, and Remedie to restore life to her baby. Wulliam’s plan is to join a whaling crew intent on killing the animal, and take a small portion of the beast as his prize. Joining a crew isn’t easy however. The sole surviving ship is run by an angry sea captain called Murdagh. He has run a successful whaling ship for many years, and he is determined to add the mormorach’s skeleton to his collection. He becomes a kind of side villain to the story – as a reader, one fears that he might get the mormorach first.
Riverkeep fits the mould of the traditional coming-of-age story. Wulliam isn’t ready to take on his responsibilities, so he devotes himself to a new task – that of saving his father. However, along the way, he learns enough to prepare himself for his role as Riverkeep upon his return.
Some of the fantastical elements were a little hard to follow, but overall I enjoyed this book a lot more than I had anticipated. The story’s rhythm pulsed and flowed, much like the river which is at its core. It was a lovely debut, and I look forward to seeing what else Martin Stewart brings out.
The Danék is a wild, treacherous river, and the Fobisher family has tended it for generations—clearing it of ice and weed, making sure boats can get through, and fishing corpses from its bleak depths. Wulliam’s father, the current Riverkeep, is proud of this work. Wull dreads it. And in one week, when he comes of age, he will have to take over.
Then the unthinkable happens. While recovering a drowned man, Wull’s father is pulled under—and when he emerges, he is no longer himself. A dark spirit possesses him, devouring him from the inside. In an instant, Wull is Riverkeep. And he must care for his father, too.
When he hears that a cure for his father lurks in the belly of a great sea-dwelling beast known as the mormorach, he embarks on an epic journey down the river that his family has so long protected—but never explored. Along the way, he faces death in any number of ways, meets people and creatures touched by magic and madness and alchemy, and finds courage he never knew he possessed.
Do you take publishers’ comparisons into consideration? Do they ever really live up to their claims to be like classics?