Tony and I have been swept along in the dark, treacly undercurrents of Riverkeep, a remarkable first novel by Martin Stewart that will appeal to fans of Patrick Ness, Philip Pullman and Jonathan Stroud. When we crawled out on the other side, feeling soggy and emotionally drained, we had a lot to talk about.
In the first chapters we were introduced to fifteen year old Wulliam and his father, the Riverkeep. This is not a job title to be envied, mostly involving pulling dead bodies out of the water and keeping lamps lit to stop the river from freezing over (and you thought booksellers had it tough). We felt for Wull and his desperate longing to escape from the responsibility of inheriting his father's role. Then, when a strange parasite takes possession of his father's body like some sort of horrible terminal disease, Wull has to begin a quest to find the only known antidote. Unfortunately the only known antidote must be extracted from a sea monster called the mormorach, busy terrorising a fishing village at the other end of the river. So the story opens out, exciting us with the promise of monsters, pirates and a full exploration of this grimy, salty, imaginative world.
Along the way Wull meets a host of characters, picking up a series of waifs and strays who both help him and seriously try his patience. Wild girl Mix is a streetwise stowaway who joins Wull after she has escaped from some pirates. But why was she on the run and what exactly did she steal? Tillinghast is an homunculus, a man made of skin packed with straw and a bit of magic, who is unnaturally strong and extremely sarcastic, providing moments of levity in an otherwise dark environment. His wicked wit will appeal strongly to lovers of Derek Landy's Skullduggery-style banter. There are many other powerful characters and, like Huckleberry Finn's Mississippi, Wull's River Danek becomes a character in its own right. Riverkeep clearly comes from a diverse, murky soup of inspirations. In Murdagh, an obsessive hunter going after the same sea monster as Wull, we appear to have a Captain Ahab. In Tillinghast, we have a delightful cross between Frankenstein's monster and the Scarecrow of Oz, with all the mad existential crises that you might assume would go along with that.
The book finishes with a heavy emotional climax, as well as a nice set up for a sequel that will perhaps feature Mix more centrally. We look forward to further explorations of Martin Stewart's world, once we've had time to rinse the saltwater from our clothes and recover from sea monster induced shock. Hold your nose and dive in after us.