Sunday, September 14, 2014
The Bird of the River by Kage Baker
by Kage Baker
Tor Books, 2010
I cannot possibly be objective about this book, because it is all my favourite things. It breaks my heart that there will be no more books in this series, and that this particular book has gone out of print without even a paperback run. Why, for gods' sakes, is no one reading Kage Baker?
Books like this only come along once in a very long while for me. And on the surface, Kage Baker's writing is... different? I want to say "workmanlike" but that doesn't do it anywhere near justice (though to be fair to "workmanlike" I actually very much appreciate writing that does what it's supposed to do without being fancy about it, even though I appreciate the fancy stuff too.) It's very storyteller-like. It's propulsive without being manipulative, it's clear, it's concise, it's descriptive in the ways that mark the important details and give the reader enough to build a sharp, clear picture without being overbearing. It's unsentimental but deeply respectful of her characters. It's simple without being patronizing. The pacing is spot-on.
Writing this makes me want to read it again right now.
Baker's writing is utterly unlike much of what I read, even though this book employs several familiar fantasy tropes. It felt new, though. I surprised myself by how much I loved this book in particular, even though I really liked The Hotel Under the Sand and Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy. But the idea of the book appealed to me. One of the things I love about it is that it is so unsentimental, which it shares very much in common with the first two Bakers I read. I said it's propulsive without being manipulative and I think that's one of the things that appeals so much to me about Baker's writing: she can make me feel attached and concerned and interested, without feeling like I've been told either implicitly or explicitly how I should feel. She was a writer who took her reader's intelligence and compassion for granted, and I like that very much.
The premise of this book caught my attention immediately. Eliss and her family, her younger half-brother and her drug addict mother, are trying to find work for her mother so that they can survive. Her mother is a diver and they're looking at river boats because in her mother's condition she isn't strong enough to dive in the sea as she used to. They find themselves upon the enormous barge The Bird of the River, a ship so large as to be a floating village unto itself. The crew's job is to clear the wide, slow river of snags and underwater hazards, so they need divers; Falena is hired, and Eliss and Alder start finding their own way upon the boat as well.
There's quite a lot more to the plot, and it explores themes of loss, racism (Alder is of mixed race, and part of the reason they can't settle down is because of the colour of his skin), violence, addiction, loyalty, family, poverty, love, coming-of-age. Which makes this book sound heavy and overloaded, but it simply isn't. This isn't an issues book - it's well-rounded and the issues are there because the world and the characters are rich and well-developed. None of them weigh this book down in the slightest.
I really, really loved this book. I'm hoping to find a paper copy even though the book is out-of-print. I know I'm going to want to read this again and again. Possibly tonight.