There are no gods in This River Awakens, only monsters—and the monsters of this novel are real as its readers. They are fathers, brothers and sons; they are sisters, mothers and lovers; and their lives, like ours, have little meaning. Their destinies are not manifest. Their actions, be they right or wrong, calculated or careless, kind or cruel, won’t change the world. And the river around which Steven Erikson’s indescribably dark debut revolves will run on regardless.
First published in 1998 under a cover bearing Erikson’s given name, Steve Lundin, This River Awakens is far from the sort of narrative you might be inclined to expect from the Byzantine mind behind the ten volumes of The Malazan Book of the Fallen. That said, this novel could have been written by no other author. It bears many of the same traits that made Gardens of the Moon and its many successors such an immense and intense pleasure: the prose is painstaking; the characters incredibly complex; and though its themes lean towards the obscene, there’s a real sweetness to them, equally.
What This River Awakens doesn’t have is a whole lot of plot. Still, we’ve got to give it a shot.
It’s 1971, and spring is in the air. Twelve year old Owen Brand and his family have just moved to Middlecross, a small town in the countryside of Canada. There, they hope to leave behind the hardships of the past, but over the course of the four seasons Erikson chronicles in this revised edition of his first novel, it becomes clear that real change must begin within.
Something of a serial new kid, Owen has little difficulty fitting in with the kids of Middlecross. He takes up with three other boys his age—Roland, an old-fashioned farmhand; a mean-spirited miscreant called Lynk; and Carl, the butt of every bad joke—and goes about insinuating himself into the dynamic they have established. They’re a fearsome foursome before you know it. Of children, admittedly:
But it was our world and our time, when the earth loosed its secrets, staining our hands, our knees. The river birthed our cruel laughter, as it did our pensive silences. It carried pieces of the city half submerged past us, a barbaric pageant, a legion burdened with loot. Dead dogs and tree branches, tricycles frozen in bobbing ice, a water-filled wooden boat with pieces of dock still trailing from nylon ropes, a television casing—show endless scenes of flooding—and small, bedraggled clumps of feather. The booty of a strange war.
The scene remains vivid in my mind. Four boys, aged twelve one and all. What lay before us was the river, remorseless like thought itself, in its season of madness.
These cryptic messengers hardly fill Owen with hope, however. He’s merely making the best of a bad lot whilst waiting for the other shoe to drop. He’s been here before, of course, so he struggles to see a possible tomorrow any different from today:
I did not imagine the future to be in any way different from the present. There would still be station wagons for the kids, washers and dryers in the basement, double beds and dens cluttered with the efforts of haphazard hobbies. And there would still be summers stained with motor oil and sweat. Nor did I think that we’d be any different: Lynch’s quick grin and the stick in his hands; Carl fumbling behind us and wiping his nose on his sleeve; and Roland, silent and full of life, with dirt under his nails and calluses on his palms. And somewhere, there in the future, I’d still be the unknown with the darting eyes, his face an unreadable mask.
Owen does not think the river will touch him, but it will. It will affect all of the boys, because one day, in the course of their random rambling, they come across a bloated body on the shore: the rotting corpse of a giant man. For reasons none of the kids can articulate, they make a pact to keep this secret between them—and for a time, it binds them. It both preserves their innocence and promises a significant shift, as and when they are ready to accept certain adult realities.
In the interim, the thought of the body obsesses Owen especially:
He’d had a name once, and a life. He’d had dreams, fears, maybe even loves. Now, all that had been wiped away as completely as his own face. A man, a giant, a nobody. We owed him something—I wanted to give him back his face, his name, his history. I wanted to put him back in his rightful place. At the same time, he had come to exist only for us, and that made us more than what we’d been. He’d come to open our eyes, but they hadn’t been opened enough. Not yet. He had more to give us.
Even as I thought those thoughts, I felt uncertain, uneasy. We’d made a pact with a dead man—he could only speak to us with what he had left, and he now existed in each of us and life and infection he spread his silence through us, until we hardly ever spoke about him any more. Any yet, I sensed that we all felt the words piling up behind that silence. One day the dam would break, I suspected.
And one day it does.
All this unfolds at a pace I’m afraid many readers will call ponderous, to put it politely. “This was my first novel, and people said ‘it’s a bit long,’” Erikson jokes in the acknowledgements, but though This River Awakens falls far short of the length of any of the author’s massive Malazan novels, there’s a whole lot less going on, and a problematic proportion of what we are treated to is of secondary interest at best.
The thing of it is, a surprisingly large cast of characters exist on the fringes of the fiction, and though some add to the scope of the story, offering alternative angles on Owen, Middlecross and more—particularly our precocious protagonist’s love interest Jennifer, and Gribbs, the yacht club watchman who takes an unlikely interest in him—several other threads stand to contribute little more than mood. Fisk, for instance—a monstrous mink farmer who masturbates over the bodies of the wide-eyed beasts he breeds—is utterly repugnant, yet narratively redundant.
Which brings me neatly to another of This River Awakens’ issues: as brilliantly written as it is, and it is—if the passages excerpted earlier haven’t convinced you of this, I don’t know what will—there’s a discomfiting abundance of ugly in this novel. As such, readers of a sensitive disposition would be well advised to steer clear of Erikson’s deeply disturbing debut. A lot of it is, in a word, disgusting. In addition to the aforementioned man and his mink—and the giant’s rotting corpse, of course—a troubled girl is sodomised by her father in full view of the neighbourhood, one woman has her jaw destroyed by her drunken, hateful husband… and I could go on.
Indeed, I did; I kept reading, through all this awfulness and any number of other instances of trangressive violence and sexuality. In fact, that’s a telling testament to the raw power of this novel—of Erikson’s hypnotic prose in particular—for as sickening as it is, This River Awakens is bold, and indisputably beautiful, too.
In its way, I dare say. But Erikson’s way is one Malazan fans will be familiar with. And in the same vein as the start of that series, this debut demands a lot of its readers early on. To be sure, it takes too long to get going, but as hard as This River Awakens is to get into, it’s roughly twice as tough to get out of. So engrossing is this author’s first fully-fledged work of fiction that the world itself feels unreal on the back of such a bleak and revealing dream.
Assuming, then, that you can get past the horrifying darkness at the heart of This River Awakens, a longing and lovingly lyrical coming of age tale awaits. Excepting the occasional digression, a truly revelatory read.
This River Awakens is published by Tor Books. It comes out June 9.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he contributes a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On occasion he’s been seen to tweet, twoo.