Tuesday, 5 November 2002
Paul J. McAuley: Child of the River (1997)
Review number: 1130
The strange world of Confluence is the setting for McAuley's trilogy of the same name; Child of the River is the first volume. It was created by the Preservers, who populated it with diverse creatures derived from Earth's animals raised to human intelligence, and who then disappeared. Confluence is now considerably decayed, full of machines whose purpose is not understood, whose workings follow the Arthur C. Clarke dictum and are indistinguishable from magic; while the Preservers themselves have been mythologised into a pantheon of gods supposedly watching over the fate of the inhabitants.
The central character, the boy Yama, appears set apart from the beginning; Moses-like, he is found as a baby floating down the great River, not in a reed basket but accompanying the coffin of a dead young woman. He is brought up as the adopted son of a village official, but becomes the centre of intrigue when others start to investigate his "bloodline" - he is not one of the common types found throughout Confluence, and so his heritage is unknown. He finds that he experiences a strange communion with the machines around him which marks him out, and he begins to travel to find out who he is and why he is there.
The plot clearly picks up many ideas from Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces, but it is the setting and style which are of greater interest. The latter is distincly reminiscent of Gene Wolfe, a writer greatly admired but not, I think, frequently imitated. There are two sequences of novels which Child of the River calls to mind: The Book of the New Sun and, even more so, The Book of the Long Sun (which is more or less contemporary with this trilogy). This similarity is partly because of connections between the backgrounds of the series, but it is mainly because of the way that the background is expressed in the story. (The down side of this, more obviously so in McAuley than Wolfe, is that exposition of the setting and delight in detail get in the way of plot development.) I would not say that McAuley is as good a writer as Wolfe, not that Child of the River is his best work; it is a little too derivative for that. It is, though, an interesting and worthwhile read.