Martin Stewart’s first novel is a whale of a fantasy attempt. It is often said that first novels are ‘semi-autobiographical’, that second ones ‘draw on the author’s family’ etc.. There is a similar effect with fantasy novels; different in that you can see on whom and from where the author has drawn on his or her fantastical experiences growing up. This novel adduces this concepts by mashing together elements from the classics of Melville’s’ Moby Dick, Shelley’s Frankenstein, anything Dickens, and Baum’s Oz into a Scottish coastline mythology, replete with its vital monsters, craggy characters, brooding skylines, and guttural patois. The fantasy also pays a nod to Terry Pratchett, Ursula Le Guin, Mervyn Peake and Neil Gaiman.
Yet for all this, Stewart’s prose proves he’s got some talent. Genuinely good narration isn’t just about hooks for louder and louder ‘action’ but possess a descriptive quality that is both subtle and intelligent. From the opening pages we realise that Riverkeep is going to be powerfully descriptive in both scene and character: “the river’s black void, its thick scum and little puddles of treacherous clarity – and the huge, sharp rocks fringed with weed like a corpse’s hair” – though this reviewer will note that this metaphor needs to be reversed. A corpse’s hair can move like weeds when in water, but weeds cannot move like a corpse’s hair – the latter is unmoving. Still, you get my drift, this novel abounds in clear prose that dances along the river with swirling precision. It’s not J G Ballard, but it’s a commendable first effort which immediately moves Stewart above the vast majority of fantasy trite produced in the past decade. One passage stands out:
“The boards of his deck were stained a deep crimson, the wood having been soaked in blood beyond imagining each time a whale or a mairlan or shark was hauled aboard to have its skin and blubber flensed: the termite scurry of the crew stripping the fleshy giants to the bone within hours; the meat and fat rendered in stinking fires on deck, skeletons smashed with hammers for corsetry and medicine. The Flikka was a ceaseless engine for death, harvesting the lives of the sea with merciless and relentless efficiency.”
There is also a great deal of opining mysticism feigning as philosophy in the novel; characters deliver monologues or soliloquies to justify their actions. Each is delivered in a manner that truly reflects the character; the language changes, the conviction is real:
“Why are there gods in their hundreds for its care an’ worship, but only a han’ful for the land? Think o’ your reflection in the surface o’water: only the sea can show ye to yersel’ an’ tell ye who ye really are. The land shows nought but muck.’…’The thing about a whale is he knows, when ye moves alongside him, he knows that yer goin’ to try an’ spear him, an’ he challenges ye to kill him…he looks at ye, an’ if a shark’s got lifeless eyes a whale’s got warm eyes, warmer’n cragolodon or mairlan or anythin’ else: he looks at ye with eyes as deep as yer own soul an’ he chooses to fight ye.”
Of course, every good fantasy novel has two themes: a quest and a maturing. The first resides here in the trip by Wull to find a cure for his possessed Pappa in the magical juices in the eyes of the Mormorach of Canna Bay; the second is manifest in his personal growth encouraged by the magical motley crew of his bata. In its depths we find the homunculus, Tillinghast, the ethereal witch, Remedie, the enigmatic tattooed thief that is Mix.
Where the author is so successful is in his choice of characters down this watery yellow brick road. Readers will find a favourite: mine is Tillinghast, a straw man low on manners, high on opinion and fists. He is utterly infuriating, yet hides a softness that does not appear until the climatic showdown at Decatur house. His interactions are fast, brutal, amusing, dogged. For all his frustrations, his ability to quaff potoem, his lewd insinuations, his mocking refusal to row he is immensely likeable and his sub-story enables Stewart to write some glorious passages that are straight out of Pratchett and Dickens – full of humour and a deft touch of language:
“Nominative determinism is a fascinating idea,’ Rattell continued, ignoring him…‘Isn’t that extraordinary?’
‘Extraordinary. Borin’ as buggery, but sure, extraordinary.’
‘Mr Pent, for example,’ said Rattell, ‘is a…ball of stored aggression and anger – just waitin to explode.’
‘In a cascade of glorious song?’”
It is the cascade of supporting characters that Wull’s inadvertent crew bring with them that provides the staggering episodes of this novel. From Mr Pent to raging Ursa, to Pappa’s metamorphosis into a kind of Gollum, to the Shakespearian Bootmunch, to Mrs Vihv then, at last to Captain Gilt Murdagh…each helps Wull realise that he is, in fact, master of Riverkeep, that it is his river to care for and his journey along it is simply one to let his past go, allow his father to move on and, in the end, come to a peace around a group of people who might be friends, but certainly come to his aid when he most needs it.
A fine first novel from Martin Stewart. It will be interesting to see how he follows it because there is some literary talent lurking here.