A coming-of-age, fantasy adventure in a magical, Scotland-infused world swimming with threats and danger, magic, wonder and myth. We follow Wulliam, son of the Riverkeep and soon to be Riverheep himself, who embarks on a dangerous downriver journey to save his beloved Pappa when he becomes possessed by a river spirit. The Riverkeep’s job is to tend the river, keeping the waterways free of ice in the winter and removing and administering to the dead when they are found. Abandoning his post at the river and letting it freeze over for the first time in centuries, Wull’s only hope is to get his father to the sea, then, somehow hunt down and kill a legendary water monster whose bodily tissues and fluids are said to have healing properties and other restorative powers.
Along the river, Wull, for whom time is of the essence, meets and reluctantly accumulates some hangers on. First is Mix, a sprightly, chipper girl that has a gift for thievery and seems very easy to like. Then Tillinghast, a man who is made of straw, herbs, skin and consciousness that provides most of the comic relief with some oddly placed knob jokes. Then there’s Remedie, an on-the-run witch lady, prim and proper, cradling her strange, wooden baby. They're a motley crew, taking up too much space in bäta, a kind of (possibly semi-sentient) ceremonial rowing boat with eyes.
As they make their way down the river, far beyond Wull’s usual territory, the characters encounter various obstacles, fights, deadly creatures and other hostiles. They are forced to depend on the unique skills of one another for survival. Mr Pent and Mr Rigby, the duo of hitmen employed by the snivelling Mr Rigby reminded me of Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar from Neverwhere, a book whose influence on this one is evident. (Reluctant, slacker hero; impish girl sidekick; impossible quest to slay a mythical beast; grotesque brutish hitmen; verbose conman with certain, post demise talents- I realise Neverwhere is basically the Odyssey, yes, but the similarities are too many to not be noticed).
I felt this book left a lot of unanswered questions. Why didn’t Mix eat? What were those tattoos? How did the Mormorach’s first victim’s face get all that way up river from the estuary? What happened to Bonn, Remedie and Mix? What was the Mandrake all about? What will Wull do now? Should he get some more whale oil while he’s in the city?
This was a strange read for me. I was very aware of the writing throughout- it’s a style that forces the reader to notice; very heavy on the metaphors and the mysterious, unexpected imagery. Riverkeep’s prose is very thick and gloopy, the world-specific dialogue swamping the reader. I found myself frequently putting this book down just for a bit of a breather and respite from the constant, somewhat domineering language. I’m not sure who this book is written for to be honest. I don’t think younger readers will persevere with the overwhelming language, the slow (but effective) world building and the gentle pace of the adventure. There are episodes of action and violence, but they are spread thinly throughout a 350+ page novel. I don’t think many readers will have the stamina to get very far with this. Tillinghast’s saucy Carry On-esque comments might raise an eyebrow or two, but they are so buried in the molasses of the prose that I’m not sure they would be understood.