|Owen is twelve going on twenty, a boy whose family keeps moving around and this year have landed in the countryside of Middleton, where there is a river, and a yacht club, and a mink farm. Owen becomes part of a band with three other boys: Roland, Lynk, and Carl the hero, the fink, and the ordinary boy and becomes friends with Jennifer, whose family is as unstable emotionally as Owen’s is locationally. Both Owen and Jennifer are survivors, with sensitivity and toughness and carapaces that put off most others, and with each other they see through the seeming, to quote Peter Beagle.
There are some gut-wrenching and heart-twisting scenes, verging on Steven King horror, as we get to know the characters, but even the worst of them are understandable and even sympathetic, which is damn good writing. Fisk, and Lynk, and Jennifer’s alcoholic father Sten, and school teachers are too real to dismiss, horrible as they are at times. On the other hand, there is Walter Gribbs, the old watchman at the yacht club, a watchman in every sense and connotation of the word. And not all of the teachers are dipsticks. Many of the adults are well-intentioned, and a few of them are even competent, but in the battleground confrontations between kids and teachers, blood flows metaphorically. Warning: there is a lot of profanity, because tough kids and wretched adults curse a lot. If you are fastidious about four letter words, this might be a style-stumble, but there are diamonds in this story, I assure you.
The river that flows where people have made their dwellings is central to the whole story, literally and symbolically. Walter lives by it and understands it; the boys are drawn to it; lives and deaths depend on it. It’s the unicorn of this realistic fantasy, and like Beagle’s unicorn, it is threatened.
This River Awakens was originally published as written by Steve Lundin, and if you read the Dedication and between the lines, you can make a guess why. Now, in the wake of becoming an award-winning and best-selling author with The Malazan Book of the Fallen series, this first novel is being reissued. Instead of high fantasy, this is earth and water and everyday life and coming of age: secrets and disappointments, opportunities and losses, friendships and enmities, making decisions and living with the consequences. It’s part Stand By Me and part the story of Cain and Abel as it plays out in generation after generation, as told by the third brother Seth and the disregarded sister, and it’s about the death of Pan and of the river god. So it is a fantasy after all, as I said, but disguised. ~~ Chris R. Paige