Child of the River
by Paul J. McAuley
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Paul J. McAuley's most recent novel, Child of the River, which forms the first of the "Confluence" series, is stylistically reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun." The similarities are actually greater than merely the writers' styles, for in many ways, they share setting and characters.
Like Wolfe's Severian, McAuley's Yama is a foundling being raised by the powers-that-be in their city far from the central powers. Both characters live on a world set in our distant future. These worlds are both in decline and have come to a point where technology frequently masquerades as magic, although hints of their real history can still be found. The support characters in both works are also eccentric, although McAuley's seem to owe more of their eccentricity to a mixture of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast novels and H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau than to anything else.
The world of Confluence is inhabited by creatures which all seem to have started out as humans, but who have been genetically altered to create separate bloodlines. The foundling Yama has never met anyone of his bloodline. When Doctor Dismas, an apothecary, makes a discovery relating to Yama's bloodline, the novel is set in motion as various factions on Confluence decide that Yama may be the most important person on the planet.
Like Wolfe's Severian, Yama leaves everything he knows to make a journey of discovery to the centers of power. Along the way, Yama meets several people who seem to know more about him and his bloodline than he does, however, while recognizing his importance, none of these people are willing to share the information with Yama. Occasionally Yama comes across hints to his ancestry, whether in the form of a picture in the back of an old book, or a few careless words from an acquaintance. For the most part, however, McAuley is content to leave the reader as much in the dark as Yama is. Even when McAuley finally tells us what Yama is, he leaves the significance of the revelation for later explanation.
Confluence is as complex as Yama's past. The world is gripped in a war between orthodoxy and and ill-defined group of heretics. Several years earlier, Yama's older adoptive brother, Telmon, was killed fighting the heretics. Yama yearns to be allowed to follow in Telmon's footsteps to avenge his brother and gain glory in war. He is not permitted to enlist, partly because of his age, but mostly because his various guardians believe him to be too important to serve in battle. Instead, his adoptive father, the Aedile of Aeolis, has arranged for him to be a clerk in the distant capital of Ys. Although Yama eventually seems to resign himself to this fate, he does so in the hopes of discovering more of his ancestry in the archives maintained in Ys.
Unfortunately, the readers will also have to resign themselves to not finding out the answers to all of their questions. McAuley has quite clearly conceived of Confluence as a series in which the individual novels don't quite stand on their own. Although this will give the finished work a coherent structure in which the additional volumes don't seem tacked on, it means the reader will be forced to discover the secrets of Confluence in an episodic fashion, again, much like Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun."
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