Paul J. McAuley

Avon Eos / 336 pages / June 1999

ISBN: 0380792966

The mere mention of a new science fiction or fantasy series is enough to send me shrieking from the bookstore. And don’t try telling me I’m the only one. Sometimes, the stand-alone novel seems on the verge of extinction, pushed aside by the double trilogy and the (shudder) movie/TV/game tie-in. The announcement of a new series isn’t always good news — unless the name on the cover is Paul McAuley. Then we’re talking celebration.

For anyone who has followed McAuley’s career from Eternal Light to the award-winning Fairyland, the promise of more volumes to follow is like an early birthday present (or a late one, just depending). And with Child of the River to judge by, this is a present no one is going to be taking back.

The Confluence is the end product of an ancient civilisation, a disintegrating world abandoned by the races of gods that made it. The inhabitants are a Dr. Moreau menagerie. Every bloodline bears the characteristics of humanoid and at least one species of animal, “a thousand-thousand extraordinary bloodlines… ruled by… universal devotion to absent gods.”

The only exception to this bestial population is Yamamanama — thankfully “Yama” for short. An orphan of unusual circumstances and more unusual talents who is driven to ferret out the secret behind his ancestry. The need to search for his own bloodline draws him to Ys, the Confluence’s major city. The need to avenge his foster brother’s death propels him toward the war that threatens to end the world.

McAuley’s creation is a strange, intense land. Violence and blind faith control virtually every aspect of society. Barbarism thrives alongside the leftovers of a vanished, technologically-superior race. This juxtaposition makes for a background unlike the usual settings in science fiction and fantasy novels. There may be wizards and magic, but don’t expect pretty fairies and winsome elves to show up; the creatures of the Confluence would literally have them for breakfast.

Child of the River introduces readers to an unpredictable world, where every character is like a different species. And where far too many of them — despite the pelts and jagged teeth — are eerily similar to the working stiff in the next cubicle, if you add an interesting personality to your co-worker.

Yama’s story appears to be just beginning in Child of the River. There is material aplenty to fill the coming volumes and mysteries yet to solve. Indeed, expect no neat resolutions in this first instalment. This is a tale that will and should stretch over many novels. Your experience with Yama and the Confluence is merely beginning and the surprises promise to be many. And that may be the best news you hear this week.