The Bird of the River by Kage Baker
So here we are with The Bird of the River by Kage Baker. It is set in the same universe as The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag but is one of these happy authorial accidents rather than someone sitting down to write a sequel, i.e. you can read it without any knowledge of the other two books. Thinking about the circumstances, I suppose we should approach this as a potential swan song. As an aside, the idiom often has a quietly perverse interpretation. In theory, it should follow the reality which is that the best a Mute Swan can manage during its life is a venomous hissing and the odd honk but, in old folk tales, the sentimentalists often give it one beautiful note just before, or upon, death. Such is the power of a romantic imagination. The modern usage tends to celebrate a successful performer who manages to pull out one final act of magnificence, usually knowing it will be the last possible before death. When the audience is in on the secret, it makes the event all the more poignant, becoming a highly emotional way for everyone to say goodbye. We lose this impact in the written form because readers may come to a book many years later without knowing the background. In this instance, it is hard to predict how many full-length posthumous works we will see in print so, for now, let’s treat this as Ms Baker’s last.
This is a mystery masquerading as a fantasy novel. The headless body of a wealthy family’s son is found in the river, so the undercover PI works his passage on a river barge as it makes its way upstream clearing hazardous underwater obstructions. He hopes to track down the killer and recover the victim’s head — perhaps, like Moslems, the families of this world’s powerful elite prefer to have all the body parts collected together for a respectful burial. You also have to remember this is a fantasy and people are often beheaded for the best of reasons. When barbarian or demon hitmen of limited brainpower are involved, they take heads to prove they killed the right person. Anyway, the set-up has the young PI meet the young lady with keen eyes and surprising intelligence on the barge and they pair up to work out who done what to whom and why.
As I have commented before, Ms Baker may not have been one of the greatest prose stylists but, when on form, she could tell a good story. In part, she became a willing victim of the publishing industry. Obviously, when someone is throwing money at you, there’s a temptation to give the people what they want. In this and most other cases, the bean-counters want length, believing the buying public wants more words for their bucks. Hence, there has been a slow but steady inflation of the published lengths of “novels”. For them that can spin out a slight story and hold the readers’ interest, this is easy money. But for people like Ms Baker, this was a real challenge. She was excellent as a short story writer and turned in some top-class novelettes and novellas. But the novels could be very patchy when she struggled to find those extra words.
Hence, it is with great relief that I can applaud this book. It is short by modern standards. Perhaps the need to finish it before death overtook her forced a more direct approach. For whatever reason, we are left with a stronger novel, even though it could be considered YA in spirit. It is an adequate mystery with a relatively unobtrusive magic element, and it positively zips along, easily holding interest and driving through to the end. For once, I can give unreserved praise and, more importantly, if this should prove to be the last novel, it is a good swan song effort.