Monday, November 22, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 292 (11/22) -- The Bird of the River by Kage Baker

Some books are bittersweet for external reasons: The Bird of the River, coming six months after Kage Baker's untimely death, is particularly sad, as it will have to stand for all of the novels and stories that she would have written if she'd had the twenty or so more years that, if this were at all a just universe, she would have had. But this is not a just universe, of course -- that's why we have fiction in the first place.

The Bird of the River is set in the same world as Baker's fantasy novels The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, but it's not directly connected to either of them. (It does, though, take place at about the same point in time -- Baker's fantasy world has plenty of interesting things happening in it, but none of them concern Dark Lords or the Fate of the World, which is all to the good.) It's doesn't fit into any of the major subgenres, actually -- there's no epic plot, it's clearly not in our world, it doesn't take place in a city of any kind, the story doesn't focus on the intrigues of the aristocracy, there are no vampires or werewolves, it's not steampunk or alternate anything. It's a mildly picaresque novel and a bildungsroman, but nothing more focus-grouped and precisely targeted than that; it's the story of one girl, and of how she came to realize that she's actually a young woman.

Eliss and Alder are sister and brother in their early teens; their fathers are different (and both long gone), but their common mother is the prematurely broken-down addict Falena, who used to be a deep-water diver but has been dependent on a sequence of "uncles" for some time now. Eliss is sure her mother can go back to being strong and independent -- and would love some stability, and regular meals, in her life. So she pushes Falena to take a job as diver on the river maintenance barge The Bird of the River.

That doesn't work out well for Falena, but Eliss quickly finds a position on the boat: her sharp eyes and wits make her a valued lookout, and she comes to spend most of her time up at the top of the mast, looking out for the snags that it's the Bird's job to clear from the river. Alder also begins to find a place for himself in the world, though that's complicated by his heritage -- he's one-half Yendri, a green-skinned humanoid race of pacifists that lives in the forests, and there's the usual tension between different groups of people that live close to each other. (There are "demons" as well -- given that this is a fantasy novel, I'm a bit tentative on this point, but they seem to just be another, not particularly supernatural, intelligent humanoid race with a tendency towards banditry and other antisocial activities.)

The Bird of the River is a slow-moving novel, much like the river the boat of the same name traverses: it's made up of episodes and moments rather than being driven by a strong central plot. But that's entirely appropriate for the story of year in which a young woman finds a job she's good at, people she fits in with, and, even, maybe, a young man she can love for a long time (in the person of Krelan, who joins the Bird on a mission to find the head of a murdered nobleman). Baker makes each of those episodes precise and true, like a gem in a necklace or the sun glinting on a vast river on a summer day. This novel isn't much like her "Company" novels in concept, but it has that series's willingness to wander off on tangents and explore side channels when those are the most interesting things at hand, and it has Baker's wonderful straightforward voice, with a tone that implies it knows so much about the world, but still has an essential optimism that everything can work out all right in the end.

Perhaps there's another Baker novel still sitting in manuscript -- I doubt I could be that lucky, but I thought Not Less Than Gods (Book-A-Day #30) was her last book, and I was happily wrong then, so I'll leave open the chance that I could be wrong again -- but, even if that's not the case, The Bird of the River is a fine send-off for a great writer: a journey begun but not ended, in a world with danger but also great possibilities, and a woman ready to live life on her own terms. Would that we all could be as happy as Eliss; would that we all could be the main characters of a Kage Baker story.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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