I recently joined NetGalley and was thrilled for the chance to read an advance copy of Martin Stewart’s YA fantasy Riverkeep, a river “road trip” tale that put me in mind of so many English literature classics I lost count, but that still managed to steer its own course and be thoroughly itself, and thoroughly unforgettable.
Wulliam is set to take on the role of riverkeep when he hits his 16th birthday in a few days, but he dreams of escaping the responsibility of the frankly abominable family calling: fishing corpses from the river, honouring these dead, and keeping lit the heat lamps that stave off freezing of the waterway.
He’s forced to assume the mantle of riverkeep early, however, when his father becomes possessed by a water spirit; poor Wulliam instantly and energetically messes up everything, but manages to keep his sights on one goal – and it’s not keeping the river, but keeping his father from slipping fully under the spell of the spirit that possesses him.
This book had me at “father” – I’m a sucker for any tale of child and dad, and that’s the heart of Riverkeep. But Stewart has also done such a phenomenal job at sketching character, and evoking the timeless but subtly changing riverside landscape. He also fearlessly weaves in Chaucer-esque bawdiness that passes the time delightfully as Wulliam goes on his nigh-impossible quest to cure his father, an odyssey downriver during which he not only grows up fast, but also attracts a gaggle of hangers-on with their own agendas.
It’s impossible not to think of Chaucer reading this, but there are also shades of Dickens (the crushing misery of poverty, against the backdrop of the distant industrial city) as well as Neil Gaiman in the way Stewart details the horror of Wulliam’s situation, including the spirit consuming his father and the murderous vigilantes pursuing their (potentially sentient) riverboat.
Did I mention that Stewart makes up his own words? I’m officially adopting “sleepmutter” into my vocabulary, and I loved the description of a sea captain’s scarred skin as “onceinjured.” One of my favorite American writers in university was Dos Passos, who shunned hyphens and coined his own compound words left and right – another sure way to my heart. The sea captain’s monologue about life on the water versus life on land, by the way, is one of the best things I’ve read in years.
Published 28 April in UK and 26 July 2016 in US by Penguin Random House. More info here.
My Goodreads rating: 5 stars