Kage Baker’s The Bird of the River flows as smoothly and powerfully as a river in flood, with secrets, suspense and danger swirling just below the surface. The novel follows the adventures of Eliss, a clever, caring girl on the brink of womanhood. Her sharp eyes and equally sharp brain, combined with a depth of unconscious humility, make Eliss an attractive character for both young and adult readers.
Set in the same reality as Baker’s earlier works The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, the novel deals with the universal themes of prejudice, codependence, addiction and autonomy. The world’s two races, the city-dwelling Children of the Sun and the Yendri, a forest-living tribe, are further divided by their religious beliefs. Eliss has a 10-year-old half-brother of mixed race, Alder. Though Eliss does her best to protect him, Alder must choose his own life—with Eliss’ people or those of his father—especially after the death of their drug-addicted mother, Falena.
Most of the action takes place on the enormous river barge Bird of the River, a boat larger than many towns where Eliss has lived. The crew includes Captain Glass, a man who is far more than he appears, the female divers who bring up snags and sunken boats from the river bottom and Eliss, who learns to be the eyes of the vessel, reading the river for signs of hidden danger.
Other characters range from the kindly first mate Mr. Riveter and his family to Krelan, an upper-class boy with a secret Eliss cleverly deduces. A series of demon-robber attacks follow the same route as the barge; as Eliss and Krelan grow closer, they discover the root of the crimes. An independent female cartographer provides Eliss with a healthy role model and mentor, while the Bird of the River itself plays an active part in her development into an independent young woman. Myth and folklore make Eliss’ world seem rich—notably, a ballad about the doomed Falena’s all-too-ordinary life and death.
From its sad and realistic beginning to its startling yet totally believable conclusion, The Bird of the River is an elegantly written, deeply moving tale. Kage Baker’s death from cancer earlier this year makes reading The Bird of the River especially bittersweet.