It is fair to say that Penguin have a lot of confidence in their new author Martin Stewart. Despite Riverkeep being his debut work, the publicity material surrounding this well-hyped novel is happy to mention him in the same bracket as tried-and-tested luminaries of Young Adult literature like Neil Gaiman, Phillip Pullman and Patrick Ness. So is this comparison too quick to judge or perfectly apt?
The book focuses on 15-year old Wulliam, who is the reluctant ‘Riverkeep’; the lone soul tasked with tending to the waters and fishing corpses out of the depths. However, when his father is possessed by a dark water spirit, he must journey further than he has ever gone before to capture a fearsome mythological sea beast – the mormorach, which is said to be able to cure his Pappa’s illness. In short, it’s The Wizard of Oz by way of Moby Dick.
For anyone who loves a good old-fashioned quest narrative, this is a real treat. Stewart’s prose is atmospheric and evocative, and the never-ending river - with its neighbouring lands and inhabitants - makes for an engaging setting. World-building is not a major part of the novel, but it works in the story’s favour to leave the supernatural elements of this place mostly without explanation.
Likewise, many of the characters are well-written and colourful. Wull’s infected father, for instance, is simultaneously heart breaking and terrifying (and a little bit like the foul-mouthed Father Jack off Father Ted). However, the book’s MVP has got to be Mr Tillinghast; a Frankenstein’s monster version of Oz’s Scarecrow, with a sense of humour as blue as his face.
On the other hand, the story is a little slow to start and the adventure you are reading the book for doesn’t really begin until a third of the way in. As such, there is a juxtaposition of tone; the book’s first act being more of a grim horror story, while the rest is lighter and faster-paced. Once it gets going, though, Stewart has a strong handle on the material, as the book seamlessly segues between moments of levity and bleakness. Seriously, there is a lot of death in this novel. In terms of characters grieving for lost loved ones and actual rotting cadavers.
So was the high praise deserved? With Riverkeep, Stewart has come out of the gate running (or, more appropriately, rowing) and, though the book isn’t completely faultless, it is a very impressive debut which suggests great things to come for the writer. Upon the basis of this novel, we look forward to seeing what they are.
RIVERKEEP / AUTHOR: MARTIN STEWART / PUBLISHER: PENGUIN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW