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Book Review: The Bird of the River by Kage Baker

This review was originally printed in Bull Spec Magazine, Issue #3.

In The Bird of the River by Kage Baker, we follow Eliss and her younger brother Alder on their journey on a river barge called The Bird of the River. Moving upstream, they map the ever-changing river and help remove snags created by submerged trees. The crew makes their money selling the new maps the cartographer makes, recovering wood from the snags, and from the occasional sunken boat salvage.  Eliss pressures her mother to join the crew as a diver, specially trained women whose expertise lies in diving deep and staying underwater for extended periods.

When their mother drowns, more responsibility falls on Eliss’s shoulders, and she finds work on the barge to help her and her brother survive. They learn a lot about their world as they travel the river, and Eliss discovers that in order to mature and move into her future, she has to let go of her past. The story tackles concepts such as death, separation, love, and family, and does so in an intelligent and thought-provoking manner. Eliss matures on her journey up the river, and, by the end, becomes a capable young woman.

The pacing of the book follows a path not dissimilar to the river itself. At first, the story is slow and wanders a bit, giving you a chance to flow with it and learn about your surroundings. The slow beginning does threaten to lose the reader at times, as nothing happens for long stretches and leaves you restless for something, anything, to change. As we near the end of the river the story quickens and we come crashing into the end. Everything is resolved quickly, and while satisfying, it still leaves the reader feeling cheated out of a more fitting finale. The story dropped off so rapidly, as if Baker had a bigger ending planned but had to cut it short, leaving the reader looking for more beyond the last page. I would have loved more conflict at the end.

It is surprising that this was a third book in the world Baker created. Fearing stepping into a series midstream, it was a relief to find that the book stood alone even without the world building in the previous installments. While there are unanswered questions, they don’t detract from the story, and manage to enhance the mystique of the world around them. However, a few questions about the characters in the book arise that aren’t answered, and would have gone a long way in satisfying the reader at the end.

Kage Baker passed away in January of 2010, losing her battle with cancer, and is well known for her “Company” series of books, as well as various other works of fiction. In 2010 she won the Nebula Award for Best Novella for her work The Women of Nell Gwynne’s. The two books that share the world that Bird is set in, The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, are available from Tor Books.

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