From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Bird of the River by Kage Baker

Review by Richard Dansky

One of the perceived limitations of modern fantasy is its supposed insistence on the epic. All the problems have to be world-shattering, all the enemies have to be evil incarnate, and the books that contain them need to be measured not in page count, but by the pound.

Isn’t it nice, then, to find tangible refutation of this fallacy in the form of The Bird of the River, an elegant novel from the late Kage Baker that manages to simultaneously focus on the most intimate details of character while taking advantage of all the metaphysical freedom that the rules of fantasy allow.

The conclusion of the trilogy begun in House of the Stag, The Bird of the River follows a teenaged girl named Elissa. Her mother, a drug-addled diver, takes passage on a giant river barge at Elissa’s prodding, only to drown while attempting to clear a snag from the boat’s path. With a half-human younger brother to care for and no other prospects, Elissa makes a place for herself among the crew, a generally good-hearted lot despite the mildly impossible personality quirks of the ship’s massive—and hard-drinking—captain.

But things get complicated when an assassin arrives on the scene, as they are wont to do. The complications, however, aren’t the expected ones—no duels to the death onboard, or deadly conspiracies amongst the crew. Rather, the appearance of young Krelan, mild-mannered Shadow to a dead scion of one of the great houses, instead causes tension between Elissa and her younger brother. It doesn’t help that he’s also struggling to come to terms with his mixed heritage and unknown father. Meanwhile, the Bird continues its journey upriver, slowly uncovering elements of Krelan’s mystery as town after town they visit is attacked by fearsome bandits.

End of the world stuff, this is not. Marvelous, understated, generous and moving, however, it is. The relationships that Elissa develops with her brother, with the endlessly surprising Krelan, and with the crew of the ship make up the bulk of the book, but it’s endlessly relatable and always emotionally true. And then there’s the vexing figure of her mother, who metamorphoses through the pages from drugged-out failure to something stronger, more sympathetic, and magical.

Even with the focus on character, Baker still manages to provide wonders of the sort fantasy fiction was designed for with graceful understatement, from the ominous consequences of the ship’s captain failing to receive his allotment of booze in port to the marvelous sights along the river. There’s swashbuckling, there’s monsters, there’s hints and allegations of a power beyond understanding, but at the heart of it all is heart, a very human growth and understanding that simultaneously makes the book accessible and marvelous.

The Bird of the River
Kage Baker
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2296-8
$25.99 | Hardcover | 272 pages
July 2010

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