Alistair Cleary is the kid who everyone trusts. Fiona Loomis is not the typical girl next door. Alistair hasn't really thought of her since they were little kids until she shows up at his doorstep with a proposition: she wants him to write her biography. What begins as an odd vanity project gradually turns into a frightening glimpse into the mind of a potentially troubled girl. Fiona says that in her basement, there’s a portal that leads to a magical world where a creature called the Riverman is stealing the souls of children. And Fiona’s soul could be next. If Fiona really believes what she’s saying, Alistair fears she may be crazy. But if it’s true, her life could be at risk. In this novel from Aaron Starmer, it’s up to Alistair to separate fact from fiction, fantasy from reality.
The Riverman (The Riverman #1)Featured
The blurb of The Riverman pulled me in but also repelled me. How can I not be intrigued by a book that name-drops such awesome titles. But, by the same token, the audacity! It’s not necessarily a good idea to draw comparisons to Carroll, Lewis, and Gaiman, because that sets a seriously high bar. In this case, though, the blurb was spot on. The fantastical other-worldness of Lewis, the weirdness of Carroll, and the creep-factor of Gaiman combine in The Riverman.
To be clear, though I see the parallels, The Riverman never felt derivative. Starmer was inspired by a lot of things (he’s even blogged about them) but his creations shines with originality and cleverness. The Riverman is the sort of middle grade fiction that is just as enjoyable for adults, the kind that has an eerie magic no matter what your age might be. The writing is intelligent, and the book isn’t written down. It’s dark and high concept.
To be honest, I still don’t have everything in The Riverman figured out. The first and last chapters basically have me entirely stymied. Obviously, this is a book I’ll need to revisit through the years and I have every expectation of finding new things each time. Though it’s a quick read, it’s also densely packed with meaning and questions. This is a book for the ambitious child and for teens and adults who still love to be charmed by the power of the imagination.
Personally, I almost always like my middle grade fiction to be about highly intelligent kids. The Riverman falls into this category. I know some people feel like that’s a bit unrealistic, but, as an adult, those are the middle grade novels I find compelling. Nothing’s obvious. When the middle graders aren’t of above average intelligence, the plot twists are usually so clear from page one. In The Riverman, I was constantly staring at the book in disbelieving wonder, because Starmer kept blowing my mind, both with twists and darkness.
Be prepared for the coup of a century! No, wait. Sorry. Be prepared for something seriously dark. The Riverman falls just short of depressing. I mean, the whole thing is about the Riverman, who is going around the world and killing children. That’s pretty macabre stuff. Of course, I’m a firm believer in kids being able to handle some of that, as the success of Gaiman’s children’s books proves. Those are a good readalike for the dark and creepy aspects.
Alistair, the main character, is sort of blind-sided by Fiona Loomis. He didn’t know her well, and she’s suddenly forcing her way into his life, asking him to write her biography. She also insists that she’s several months older than her birthday would suggest. She begins to unfold her tale of another world, a world of pure imagination called Aquavania. My favorite part was the question of whether she was speaking truthfully or whether everything was a manifestation of some sort of abuse. Really deep psychological stuff.
What Left Me Wanting More:
There were a few things that left me scratching my head. I already mentioned the ending, which is rather open and I just really want to know what was happening exactly. Then there’s Fiona’s age. She’s constantly asserting what her true age, and she’s very positive that she’s precisely fourteen or whatever. How is she tracking time so accurately in her alternate world. Does time pass the same way it does here? Is she very good at keeping a calendar? Does she account for leap years? It just seemed strange to me, because I feel like I would automatically lose track of how long I’d been there, but I’ve always been horrid with dates.
The Final Verdict:
Do you have a vast imagination and love to think about the worlds it could create? Do you like middle grade novels that will creep you out and make you think? If yes, then you need The Riverman in your life, I promise.
If I'm being honest, I probably could've finished this book in a day, but instead, I savored it for thirteen, leaving less than a hundred pages for more than a week. I even told my best friend that this was quite possibly the best written book I've read all year. He couldn't really believe me and waited till I was done to confirm such admissions. But yes, I still agree.
The book begins in a haunting sort of way, noting that "every town has a lost child." Thessaly, NY is just like any other town in that they too have a lost child and the narrator, Alistair Cleary, remembers finding him long, long ago. And while our twelve year old narrator begins to tell us his story, or rather the story of Fiona Loomis, there is a sophistication to his storytelling that is at times stark and unsettling.
Going back to my journal now, there are twenty-eight quotes that I recorded to try to preserve my memory of this book. And in a way, I think this is what Aaron Starmer would want his readers to do, creating, in essence, their own Aquavania's; their own stories, their own worlds. Starmer is a storyteller. There's no denying that. That is why this book is so powerful. You can feel how important stories are because Alistair believes in them, Fiona believes in them, and so do I.
I'm not sure if being a writer made me love this book more. There's a very good chance that's true. But I think young or old, this book will appeal to anyone. The times seem simpler in this book, a late eighties landscape filled with kids riding bikes and that small town feel that even living in a small town now, I don't quite have anymore. But with this simplicity, comes a kind of terror. Without technology, what happens when children just disappear?
Sure today children go missing all the time. Some are never found. But many are because of the technological advances we have. Without that technology, I felt terrified of this world that Alistair and the other characters inhabited. I felt scared for them.
Even amidst detailed storytelling, I still had a difficult time discerning between fact and fiction, which also scared me. For a book that I believed to be fantasy, ready to be swallowed up by rivers and men who feast upon it's children, I did not doubt Fiona. But Alistair did, leaving me torn between them. Alistair says, "stories taunted me. Even ones I didn't believe dared me to see them through the end." I know this to be true both in my life as a writer, but as an avid reader as well. And I was hooked throughout this whole book.
While some of the quotes resonated with me from a storytelling aspect, there were others that simply broke my heart. Admissions of guilt, of betrayal, of love; all of them broke me. And I've had a hard time untangling myself from this world. I can't wait to see how this continues in the next two books of the trilogy.
Until then, I think I might still be obsessing over the beautifully written words from this book. That's the thing about being a writer. I don't think it works if you don't absolutely love words. I could stare at some of these sentences all day. Lines such as: "I got my inspiration from the things in life that I feared to be true and the things in life that I hoped to be true," or "your mind is constantly wishing, even if you don't realize it. It's all in there somewhere," and "the meaning of a memory can change, even when the details remain the same," and even "but for today, let's pretend. For today, let's believe that anything is possible."
One sentence I just can't forget does not come from Fiona or Alistair. I won't disclose who says this in case you want the mystery: "Maybe someday you'll realize that goodbye can often be the best thing. Even when you're crazy about the person." This quote meant so much more after I finished the book because I really felt like I was saying goodbye to some of my favorite people. I'm going to miss Alistair so much, yet knowing that he lives within the pages of this book made saying goodbye easier. I know we'll meet again soon.
Starmer's writing style is lovely and lyrical and never downgrades the beauty of the English language because it's written for children. If anything, this book is more important because it's a children's book. I think our world needs more books like this to prove that children's literature, as well as young adult literature, is just as important as the classics.
I urge all of you to read this book this year. Whether you like contemporary fiction or fantasy, this book will appeal to you! So put this at the top of your list and I know your year will be great!