I was enticed into reading this week’s recommended book by a striking cover. “Riverkeep” is a debut novel by Scottish author, Martin Stewart. This is a story about dark deeds and bright spirits set in the kind of monster-infested Fantasy realm which makes you grateful to live in the real world – even in these anxious times. It was published in 2016 and is widely available in paperback or as an ebook
In Canna Bay a massive sea-serpent known as a mormorach has been spotted for the first time in a thousand years. Whale-hunters and fishermen hasten to the area hoping to kill this fabulously valuable magical beast. Meanwhile fifteen year-old Wulliam (Wull) and his Pappa are out on the river Danék in their rowing boat. When he reaches the age of sixteen, Wull is expected to succeed his father as Riverkeep. Wull doesn’t want this grim and lonely job, which involves keeping the river free from ice, rescuing the drowning and retrieving corpses. This winter’s night things go horribly wrong when Pappa is dragged under the water by a corpse that isn’t as dead as it should be.
Wull manages to get his Pappa back to their Boathouse but the loving father he knew is gone. Something else has taken over Pappa’s body. Wull struggles to perform the Riverkeep’s duties while his Pappa wastes away. When Wull learns that secretions from the brain of a mormorach can cure spirit-possession, he decides to row his Pappa down the Danék to the sea. Wull faces many obstacles on his urgent journey, including bandits, a crazed explorer and ferocious ursa-beasts. He also finds himself stuck with some unwanted passengers. There’s a stowaway called Mix, who is only a helpless little girl when she chooses to be, a witch called Remedie who nurses a wooden baby, and huge blue-skinned Tillinghast, who proves hard to kill because he’s never been properly alive.
Wull’s passengers are all on the run. Mix has “accidentally” stolen something from “scary people”, Remedie is fleeing from a Pastor who wants to try her for witchcraft and Tillinghast is in possession of a mandrake which some very nasty men would kill to obtain. The magic of the mormorach might help them all but even if Wull can get to Canna Bay in time, how can he compete with ruthless Captain Murdagh of The Hellsong who is determined to be the man who kills the sea-serpent?
With its icy river and forests, whale-hunters and souped-up polar bears, the geography of “Riverkeep” resembles North-West America or Canada. The period seems vaguely 19th century but with elements of earlier magic and alchemy. We are soon told that one of the main characters – Tillinghast – is an homunculus, an artificially created man. Rather than being grown inside a glass container in the traditional way (see my review of “Goblin Moon”, September 2016), Tillinghast has been stitched together from the body-parts of various people and stuffed with straw and herbs. “Riverkeep” itself seems to have been stitched together from bits of various well-known novels, such as “Frankenstein”, “Moby-Dick” (Captain Murdagh is virtually a parody of Captain Ahab), “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, and even “The Wizard of Oz”. So, is Stewart’s stuffing original enough to give this book a shape of its own? After some early doubts I was won round to the view that it is.
The cover of “Riverkeep” is cleverly designed to avoid implying that the book is aimed at any particular age group or gender, but the note about the author reveals that Stewart wrote this novel for “younger readers”. It would be hard to guess this from his complex prose style and rich vocabulary. This novel is full of striking sentences which I wanted to read aloud, such as “Think on the respectful, dignified, hidden violence o’ the sea, all its monsters floating, graceful as angels, all those masses o’ death-bringin’ teeth and tusk as smooth in that world as heavenly bodies in the sky.” If you dislike novels which attempt period language, “Riverkeep” may not be for you but Stewart does carry it off very well. His swaggering dialogue, with its frequent flashes of dark humour, delighted me.
There is so much explicit violence in “Riverkeep” that I would classify it as Dark Fantasy. Gruesome events, such as a fisherman being eaten alive by the mormorach, are described with horrid vivacity. Children will probably relish this more than squeamish adults like me. I’ve never enjoyed boat-trips very much and the story of Wull’s disaster-filled voyage hasn’t helped. This isn’t the kind of book which inspires you to want to spend time “messing about on the river”. Try messing about on the Danék and you’ll get your fingers bitten off – or worse.
Although two of the leading characters are youngsters, I wouldn’t call “Riverkeep” a child-centred story. The main emphasis is on three unusual parent/child relationships – the Riverkeep and the boy he has raised alone; Clutterbuck, an alchemist/scientist and the straw-man he has created; and Remedie and the dead baby she is trying to bring back to life. The unbreakable bond between Wull and his Pappa is established in flashbacks and by the heartbreaking way that Wull continues to care for a creature who gobbles raw fish-scraps and refers to him as “It that speaks”. Tillinghast may look like Frankenstein’s monster but he’s shown as struggling to block out the memories of the bad men he was made from and find an identity and purpose of his own. The witty bickering between sharp-tongued Tillinghast and the haughty but vulnerable Remedie is one of the highlights of “Riverkeep”. I was disappointed when Remedie and the elusive Mix suddenly disappeared from the plot but this does open up the possibility of a sequel.
Apart from the richness of his language, I think that Stewart has two particular strengths as a writer – he can create characters with fascinating interior lives and he has given his voyagers a strong moral compass. Wull is presented as a fundamentally decent boy with absolutely no social skills – how could he have when he’s been brought up in isolation? His honest words and his inability to read other people both get him into trouble but Wull’s tenderness towards the father he secretly fears is already lost is extremely touching. So is Clutterbuck’s determination that the “monster” he loves like a son should live his own independent life as a unique being. Pugnacious Tillinghast believes that he is “nothin’ but a cheap trick” but Clutterbuck tells him, “Only the unloved hate:” and that Tillinghast can become human by caring about others and making good choices.
A plot full of highly dramatic events throws up many difficult choices for Wull and Tillinghast to make. Remedie argues that feeling compassion is what makes us human. Wull puts it more simply – “a real person lives a good life by livin’ for other people.” Tillinghast may not have a heart but this novel does. In spite of a deliberately grotesque cast of characters and all the cruel and sad things that happen during Wull’s journey, “Riverkeep” is a story which leaves you a little more hopeful that “life can be free and beautiful” and that “We are all of us miracles, each with a swirling universe inside his own head.” Until next time….