Child of the River, by Paul J. McAuley

child-of-the-river-by-paul-j-mcauleyGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: William Morrow and Co.
Published: 1998
Reviewer Rating: threestars
Book Review by Paul S. Jenkins

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Paul J. McAuley, an up-and-coming British SF writer, is a name to watch. He’s had a number of excellent short stories in Interzone and elsewhere. Child of the River, the first book of a trilogy, seemed a good place check out his longer work.

The novel is set on Confluence — some kind of colony planet, where a young man must search out his destiny, find marvelous artifacts and discover who he really is. (Put like that, it sounds rather conventional, even formulaic.)

At a point nearly a third through the book, however, when our hero — the foundling Yama — wakes in a banyan tree some time after escaping from the ambiguous figure of Professor Dismas, and continues on his vaguely defined quest of finding out who he is and fulfilling his destiny, I realized I had no feeling for the characters one way or the other. It’s all rather passionless. The things that happen to Yama are well told, but we get little inner reaction from him. There’s also a lack of humor. I’m not asking for jokes, just the occasional light relief. Yama is such a serious young man that travelling with him can be tiresome.

The novel has plenty of descriptive detail. It’s very specific, if a little verbose, displaying a wide vocabulary — suggesting McAuley has done lots of research. But the setting is confusing: we have horse-back riding and plastic; oil lamps and electricity. And we have ‘machines’ and hints of nanotechnology. The science of Confluence is somewhat indeterminate, with nano-machines and mind-reading machines, all within a medieval culture. The inscrutable technology — so reliable it rarely malfunctions — seems to have been left behind by an advanced but long-since-departed civilization.

Some of the action sequences are quite gripping, but they appear as set pieces. McAuley’s precise and detailed descriptions tend towards cataloging, going for the complete picture rather than the pithy incident.

The book is definitely the first of a series — the cover announces it as ‘The First Book of Confluence.’ But even so, it ends far too inconclusively — almost like a film trailer or Part One of a magazine serialization.

At the end of Child of the River we’re not much wiser, and neither is the protagonist. Indeed he may be misguided in his quest, but I suppose this uncertainty is intended to encourage reading of the sequel.

I had similar frustrations with this book as I did with Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Indeed, more than one reviewer has described Child of the River as ‘Wolfean’.

I did wonder if McAuley has written a prequel — something that to some extent explains the setting — a short story perhaps. I’m prepared to remain in the dark throughout most of a novel, on the understanding that things will be revealed to the protagonist (and the reader) as, together, we progress. But at the end of Child of the River Yama remains partially ignorant, and perhaps even misguided. This reader finds himself not much better off.

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