Summer reading is weird. So many recommendations and must read this now articles highlighting fluff balls when I want to think, or stodgy MFA droppings when I want to feel. The NYC libraries are packed with human AC sponges staring at the same page for hours (been there) and the shelves are lined with pinks and baby blues and bare lady feet frolicking in sand.
I kind of wanted to go to one of those summer camps for adults this year. I’m not a super social person, but throwing an ax at a tree and floating in a lake with a questionable lemonade in hand (after throwing the ax) sounds like a good time. Alas, sleepaway camp for adults comes with a hefty price tag for what you get and I’d rather put that money towards something a little less surrounded by sweaty people. So my book choices have to deliver on a lot this season – entertainment, satisfaction, high in sugar-powered ax throwing fun, weirdness or all of the above. Aaron Starmer’s The Riverman came close.
Alistair Cleary lives in a small river town in Upstate New York. The children play on slippery rocks. A girl named Fiona Loomis (Looney) lives down the street with a crooked nose and a strange story. She chooses Alistair to write her biography quick before she loses her soul to the Riverman.
Fiona begins to tell us via Alistair of her adventures in Aquavania in part to explain to him how she’s now a year older than her age on paper. Once there, she can conjure any material items her mind imagines and stay as long as she likes. The only catch is time doesn’t pass while you’re gone. Spend a year in Aquavania and you return a year older to the same moment in your left. This all sounds pretty good. He’s realizing maybe he’s missing out. Then she gets to the part about the Riverman and the bigger, darker catch to this magical world. If the Riverman steals your soul in Aquavania you disappear in the solid world.
Like any sort of friend, Alistair interprets Fiona’s outlandish stories as a metaphorical call for help and maybe it is. Maybe her odd traumatized uncle is the monster responsible for children disappearing. The subtlety of Fiona’s heightened world gives the story a dark, magical tone early on. Anything can happen in this story and the stakes are high because the children she knew in Aquavania really have disappeared. The story weaves its own mythology. Since we’re reading from Alistair’s POV we have to choose who to believe.
I like that this is Alistair’s coming-of-age set against Fiona’s dark fantasy world though Fiona is the more intriguing character. Her logic of turning to Alistair to record what’s happening makes sense, but she doesn’t really need him. She’s brave and smart and creative whereas Alistair casts himself as her hero and busies up the story in doing so. This one tips to the dark side of middle grade fiction but that’s not a bad thing. I loved dark books as a kid. Stephen King’s Christine and Carrie lived in the Favorites pile on the side of my bed. Metaphor or reality, the Riverman takes the reader to a place where bad things can and do happen to children and it’s up to them to save themselves.
My only problem with this book is that the end
suuuuuuucks doesn’t do it justice. Good endings are rare, sometimes messy, sometimes they strike you as the only way the story possibly could end even though you never saw it coming. This one was more concerned with setting up the rest of the trilogy. I like about 85% of the book, but bad endings spoil the good stuff. I doubt I’ll read the rest of the trilogy.