Book review: Riverkeep, Martin Stewart

Disclosure: This review is based upon a copy provided by the publisher. No other consideration was offered.

A very wise publicist at Viking sent over a copy of Riverkeep earlier this year, demonstrating that some publicists really know how to do their stuff, because this is the sort of book that is catnip to my reading eyes. And I think it’ll be a good read for you, too, even if it’s a little off the beaten track of what I usually review here — this isn’t going to be an in-depth analysis of diversity in children’s literature, or some paeans to a soaringly beautiful and thrilling piece of highly literary YA or middle grade. But what this is, my friends, is a discussion about a book that is just plain fun, and sometimes we need to read those (and so much the better if they are also beautiful and soaring and diverse and wonderful, as they should be).

Riverkeep is about a boy who’s about to reluctantly inherit the family position of Riverkeep — the figure responsible for keeping the Danek navigable throughout the year, from clearing weeds to lighting lamps in the winter to keep the frost back to fishing bodies out of the water and returning them to their families. It’s lonely, hard, dismal work in a world that constantly smells of fish and leaves you feeling soggy and, honestly, a bit frustrated with life. It’s definitely not what what Wulliam wants to be doing when he grows up, but unfortunately, circumstances intervene when his father is possessed by a strange spirit and he’s forced to take over — but he’s also desperate to help his father, and he’s caught between the tensions of family obligations and his quest for a cure.

The book takes place in a fantastical setting filled with strange beasties and animated creatures and much, much more, and it’s also a world of superstition and nerves — the Riverkeep, for example, is feared and hated by many people, because people are convinced that he’s a cannibal, thanks to all the bodies he handles. Some parts of Riverkeep could be set anywhere, as in the case of the whaling captains who dedicate their lives to chasing down monsters of the deep to harvest their valuable bodies. Other parts are decidedly strange and otherworldly, and they’re not for the faint of heart.

Which is one of the things I like about Riverkeep. This is a middle grade novel, and people tend to think of middle grade as a sweet, fluffy genre, but this book is neither of those things. The plot is dark, the experiences of the characters are dark, and the ending is very much bittersweet, though I’m not going to go into it in detail here. This is a book that can and will suckerpunch you, because it subverts your expectations for the genre.

As we know, I like dark books, as honest reflections of the world and people’s real experiences. It would be nice to live in a fun fantasy world where nothing bad ever happens, but this just isn’t the case, and children fall victim to terrible things just as adults do. Books that engage with these issues, even if it’s more metaphorical than literal, are an important part of the literary canon, but they’re also valuable for young readers. It matters to see your experiences in fiction, or to encounter darkness that touches upon your own, instead of feeling isolated by books about things that you can’t even imagine. People need to see darkness in books, to know that they are not alone, to know that things do change, eventually.

Riverkeep explores that, but it does through by way of a genre I absolutely adore: The adventure novel. There are few things quite as satisfying to me as a novel where travelers quest across unknown lands, picking up traveling companions along the way and seeing strange and wondrous things. Some of my favourite novels are adventure novels, including both adult and children’s literature, and it’s a genre that people can have a lot of fun with.

Among other things, it tends to create really strong pacing, because the traveling pulls the plot along. With Riverkeep, it’s easy to get sucked in and to not want to put the book down. You get anxious for the characters, nervous about what’s happening, concerned that they won’t reach their destination. You want to find out if someone who seems pretty sketchy really is a totally hinky character, or if that person just suffers from being a perfectly ordinary person with a few quirks.

This is the kind of literature I lap up, and I think a lot of us do. Especially over the summer months, when the days are long and there’s an out of school feeling even for those of us who have to work, some solid summer reads are important, but Riverkeep is honestly applicable at any time of the year, whether you’re reading in the hammock in July or under the covers in December. Parents, you hella need to get this book for your kids, although you might need to steal it back and read it for yourself. People who are not parents, if you loved adventure books growing up (and/or still do), get on it.

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Image: Frozen Gynack, dunnock_d, Flickr