Sunday, 15 May 2016

'Riverkeep', by Martin Stewart

Title: Riverkeep
Author(s): Martin Stewart
Release Date: 28th April 2016
Publisher: Penguin
Genre: YA, Fantasy
Source: Publisher (ARC)

The DanĂ©k 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.
Martin Stewart's debut novel is an astonishing blend of the literary, the comedic, and the emotionally resonant. In a sentence, it's The Wizard of Oz as told by Patrick Ness. It marks the beginning of a remarkable career.


Whenever a book starts getting a lot of hype before release, I'm afraid to read it. More often than not, my expectations are not met because they were pulled to unrealistic standards by other people's reading experience or well intentioned marketing campaigns.

I had been reading nothing but wonders and raving reviews of 'Riverkeep', and it definitely sounded like something that I would like. Being offered the chance to review it I immediately said yes, but then came that usual dread: what if I'm the only one that does not like it?

I love me a good exception, and here is one that definitely lived up to its hype, and is certainly deserving of even more!

'Riverkeep' tells the story of Wulliam, a boy who, only days away from his sixteenth birthday, is dreading the passing of the mantle of Riverkeep from his father's shoulders to his; a job he does not wish for but has spent his entire life learning. One day while recovering a corpse from the river -one of the not so pleasant parts of the position- Wulliam's father is dragged underwater and comes back not entirely himself. Having heard of a mythical, magical creature that has the ability to save his father, Wulliam takes it upon himself to cross the boundaries he has known his whole life and do whatever it takes to save his father... With some very, very unexpected help.

What I was most looking forward to in this book was seeing how the fantasy elements blended with reality to create an original, unique story. The position of Riverkeep is inspired by the Glasgow Humane Society's work on the river Clyde, and it is so rare for me to see YA novels set in Scotland that are not historical/romances that just based on that I knew I had to read it. The comparisons it received to the works of Neil Gaiman, Patrick Ness, Philip Pullman and Charles Dickens certainly helped as well, and do believe me when I say that you can see where every single one of them is coming from, but this story is no ones but Martin Stewart's.

This takes me to what really grabbed me in this reading: the voice. I can see how this novel was acquired based on only the first 2000 words, because from that first chapter I was immediately hooked. There's something beautiful, unique and downright magical to the way Martin Stewart writes, and his words just grab you from this world and pull you straight into Wulliam's. The use of almost phonetic dialogue is something that has made me drop books in the past (especially when the accent in use is the Scottish one; years of living in Scotland have not made me get used to seeing it in writing), but in this case it just contributed to how atmospheric and enveloping the story is.

That balance between fantasy and reality was incredibly well achieved. Even though there are constant mentions (and appearances) of creatures and elements that do not exist in our world, I couldn't help but think of them as 'normal'; they do not exist here, but I wouldn't be surprised if they showed up one day. Here is where all those comparisons to other famous authors come into account. We have so many classic works ingrained into our memories, that seeing strains of them here and there throughout the story is incredibly familiar. Other than the more obvious parallel with 'Moby Dick', I found myself stumbling into elements that reminded me of 'The Wizard of Oz', 'Frankenstein', and even a character that somehow made me think of the Cheshire Cat from 'Alice in Wonderland'.

I'm sure that people that have not read these works but have done so with others will probably find more similarities than these, and it was such a heartwarming feeling every time it happened. It is incredibly rare seeing this sort of occurrence without it feeling like a copy or a lazy plot device, but Martin definitely takes all these inspirations and makes them his own.

As for the characters, I have an incredible soft spot for Wulliam and his father. I'm sure that a lot of people will relate to Wulliam's feeling of entrapment into a life he's not certain he wants and to how he wishes to be more than what seems to be destined for him. As his father becomes sick, even if in the story it has a 'magical' explanation, I couldn't help my heart from breaking as his symptoms are so very similar to the ones of Alzheimer's. Loving parent/son relationships seem to be hard to come by in YA, and Wulliam's patient care of his father and bravery in facing incredibly low odds in search for a cure made me want to get up off my seat and applaud him several times.

There is also a secondary character, Tillinghast, that seems awful at first but grows on you very unexpectedly. When you pick up this book (no 'ifs', come on), give him a chance. Trust me.

The only thing I had somewhat of a problem with where the changing points of view. While they were certainly interesting to have (especially the ones about the dreaded mormorach), the changes coupled with the writing style made me go back almost every time a POV changed, because I would be well over a page into a new person's perspective without realizing it. This is definitely not to blame on the book itself, but most likely my eagerness to go through the whole story in one sitting: this is not a book to read as if it were an espresso, gulping it almost all at once and only feeling its burn at the end. Think of it as a nice, steaming cup of tea. You need to sip it, bit by bit, otherwise all you'll get is a scalded tongue and the pleasure of the experience is nowhere to be found.

With its masterful combination of elements from Middle Grade, Young Adult and Literary Fiction, 'Riverkeep' is a heartbreaking, fresh story that will take readers of all ages on a trip you will never forget. You will find yourself rooting for Wulliam through all his ups and downs, and he will stick with you long after you have turned that last page.

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