Series: The Riverman Trilogy #1
Published by Farrar Straus and Giroux on March 18th, 2014
Genres: fantasy, middle grade
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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.
I don’t typically like to get into the whole ‘this book transcends the kids’ category’ shenanigans because I believe that anyone can enjoy any kind of book, but for The Riverman I’d like to make an exception. With very dark themes and subject matter, I think this is a book that will speak to both kids and adults, but in very different ways. The Riverman is at once an entertaining fantasy, a coming of age tale, and scary glimpse of what can happen when one is stuck in one’s own head for too long. With dark, dry humor, and a smart protagonist, The Riverman is a book that will be stuck in my head for a long time to come.
The star of the show, Alistair, was by far my favorite character – yes, even alongside kooky Charlie and the enigmatic Fiona. I loved Alistair for his sharp wit and for his keen, observant voice. Alistair is the kind of kid who notices things that most people would look past. Mostly, though, I loved Alistair for being a kid. He is stuck in a very hard situation, one that most adults wouldn’t know how to deal with, and while he shows a lot of maturity, he is still just a child. He is at times unable to handle his emotions, he jumps to conclusions too quickly, and makes some horrible choices. I loved him for all of it. He was a character I could relate to entirely, from the ways he understood the world around him but not himself, all the way down to wishing and longing to be liked and accepted for who he was.
I loved Alistair’s voice, and how it felt like an grown-up narrating the story from the distance of adulthood, and this is the main reason I think this would be a great book to thrust into the hands of a YA-adverse adult. There were also sections written in third person. I wouldn’t normally like the switch from first to third, but in this case I think it worked. These parts told Fiona’s story, her visits to the mythical Aquavania. I think the switch of POV showcased Alistair’s detachment from Fiona’s story well, and also avoided the dreaded conversational infodump that I just cannot stand.
One of my favorite parts of The Riverman was the setting, and no, I’m not talking about Aquavania. No, I’m talking about the small northern NY town of Thessaly where Alistair lives. I loved its traditions like the Veterans Day tree, and also how tight-knit it felt. The town is home to a small cast of crazy characters that you’d find in most suburbs: the resident ‘bad kid,’ the nosy gossip, the suspicious neighbor, the groups of kids tearing up the neighborhood on mischief night. These are the details that brought me into the story, more than Fiona’s antics or the horrible accident with Charlie. These are the details that made Alistair’s world real to me.
After finishing, once I picked my jaw up from the floor, I discovered that this is actually the first in a trilogy. While I’m totally fine with how the book ended as a standalone in my mind, I have to say that this is the first time I’ve ever been excited by an ambush series. I can’t wait to read more of Alistair’s adventures, learn more about Aquavania, and hopefully figure Fiona out. The Riverman has an ambiguous ending, one akin to maybe Cruel Beauty or I Was A Teenage Fairy. It leaves you guessing. It gives you all the tools you need to find your answers but doesn’t condescend to give those answers to you outright. The Riverman is a book that makes you work and it is so, so worth it.