Some books really force you to decide what you like more: a fast-paced plot or a slowly-evolving character arc. A River Enchanted gives you enough reasons to go with the latter. Fantasy books, especially when not in the the young adult demographic, are often expected to let a complex plot, an extensively built world, and societal themes to take the centre (and I truly love those) but every once in a while some fantasy books like The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho truly rely on its characters and they definitely deliver. Rebecca Ross’ adult debut is one such character-driven tale.
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The people of a Scottish-inspired island, Cadence, have lived under a curse —to be divided, their land literally torn in two— for centuries. The western clan, Breccans, can wield magic but their land isn’t fertile. The eastern clan, Tamerlaine, has a bountiful realm and abundant food but a limited ability to use magic. In this world, elemental spirits exist —who are hostile to the Breccans and (if not kind) at least not often cruel to the Tamerlaines. Having been at odds for hundreds of years, a boundary line exists as an attempt at peace but the hunger in the western land urges Breccans to raid the other side to steal food; and the Tamerlaines fight to hold them off.
After a decade with hardly any contact with his clan while he studied music in the mainland, Jack Tamerlaine is summoned home. He wonders the purpose behind this mysterious call and is surprised to discover the island in a crisis: young girls are going missing and people wonder if the spirits might be taking them away. Adaira Tamerlaine, the young Heir of the East, was the one who secretly summoned Jack, her former childhood rival. She’s devoted to her land and its people, willing to risk everything to find peace, and truly believes that Jack’s musical skills might be the clan’s last hope.
“She was adored, and he was reviled. She was the clan’s joy, while he was the nuisance.” Jack’s own words perfectly describe the connection that these two protagonists hold. With a particular sass, especially from Adaira’s side, and a classic banter that often led to those exciting moments of realising one’s growing feelings toward the other, the changing dynamics from their childhood feels natural at times. Certain phrases like Jack saying “Take delight in my surrender” or Adaira calling him “my old menace” will wonderfully give into the trope —not an enemies-to-lovers, though.
Still, who impresses the most is the quieter, more nuanced, and highly emotional couple: Torin and Sidra. A warrior, now named the Captain of the East Guard, who lost his wife had decided to marry a local skilled and generous healer for his daughter who needed a mother. This is the start to Torin and Sidra’s relationship, and is also the complex base that allows their individual personalities to shine through with intrigue. Torin is bound to the land by blood but a tragedy tests his duty. Sidra is a dutiful and loving mother but the fear of losing someone demands her deepest secrets.
While all four characters play important roles to propel the plot, the women easily win in terms of their arc and presence. Whether it’s Adaira’s unapologetic determination to set things right, lead the possibility of peace, or command those around her —even Jack as a bard who can draw forth the spirits by a song— or Sidra’s benevolent personality as she helps everyone around her while loving Maisie, Torin’s daughter from his first wife, like her own. She has an uncanny ability to mix herbs that reminds of Circe from Madeline Miller’s historical fiction and her unconditional love for Maisie upends the saddening classic trope of an evil stepmother —apologies for interrupting but this recommendation is a must here: Six Crimson Cranes by Elizabeth Lim— evident from this quote: “Even though the lass was not made from her own flesh and blood, Sidra imagined Maisie had been spun from her spirit.”
Despite not being too fond of secondary worlds set in and around waters, A River Enchanted pulled me in through the mist, the dark waters, the damp smell, and the unmissable coldness. With a soft magic system evolving mostly around the spirits, the island is allowed to unravel its political, historical, and mystical destinies in all its glory. It’s a little saddening to see this majorly be Jack’s story because of the least interest that he piqued, but the mystery and magic mixes well in this tale. Overall, the themes of family, home, and love were explored well through the music, the spirits, and the myths.
A River Enchanted, Rebecca Ross
HarperVoyager, February 2022
Note: A review copy was acquired via the publicist.