Speculative fiction sometimes gets a bad rap for being nothing but “escapism.” While there are certainly plenty of “just for fun” books in the genre, what people sometimes forget is that sci-fi and fantasy have often been a place where writers can experiment with unusual prose styles and tackle controversial themes that might not go over well in mainstream, “realistic” fiction. Sylvia Kelso’s Riversend is an ambitious novel, blending dense, lyrical prose with a thought-provoking look at gender roles and unconventional relationships, and it’s a good story to boot.
The prose is not going to be for everyone. It took me a little while to catch the rhythm of it. The narration is poetic and filled with sentences that are often long, descriptive, comma-laden, and sometimes fragmentary, as in this description of the character Alkhes:
Worse than outland; rankless, nameless, certainly spy, probably mercenary, possibly renegade.
Sometimes Kelso doesn’t use antecedents for her pronouns, and characters will have long internal monologues about “he” and “him” without saying who they mean, leaving the reader to use other cues to figure out who is being described. Dialogue is oblique; characters’ conversations are filled with unspoken nuances. It makes perfect sense to the characters, but I, as the reader, sometimes had to puzzle over it for a few minutes to make sure I’d caught everything. This is not a novel you can read quickly or while tired. Riversend made me work for everything I got out of it, but I feel that I was rewarded.
There are moments when the prose is just gorgeous:
A cold, austere beauty (the hills) have now, the shedding trees stripped, skeletal between the viridian or snow-silver of pine and hellien, the grass a tawny silk that plays like cat fur under the slicing winds. Their eddies sketch out the range front, contour after contour, crest, valley, spur beyond. Drawing your eyes to the horizon, where already the peaks are blanched with snow.
The plot centers around Tellurith, a House-head leading her clan to a new home after the collapse of the corrupt matriarchy from which they came. Throughout Riversend, Tellurith’s task is to make tough decisions and forge alliances that will allow her House to survive. Her goal is to create a new society in which the sexes are equal. Yet even within Tellurith’s immediate family, it’s rough going.
Tellurith’s two husbands, Sarth and Alkhes, come from vastly different backgrounds. Sarth, in his previous life, was a pampered but disenfranchised husband, living in the male equivalent of a harem. Alkhes was a military general from an empire where men are dominant. Both men bring cultural baggage to the relationship, and Kelso uses them to explore the ways that a sexist culture damages both the oppressed gender and the privileged one.
Riversend is narrated through the eyes of Tellurith, Sarth, and Alkhes, each of whom is keeping a journal, as they face the obstacles that threaten Tellurith’s dream. There are conflicts within the House, tensions with the villagers of Iskarda and, eventually, a return of Alkhes’ past in the form of a summons to Riversend, capital of the empire of Dhasdein. Their story has its ups and downs, its moments of joy (I loved the Midsummer’s Night scene!) and of tragedy, and is always compelling. The ending makes a sequel possible but not necessary.
If there’s any criticism I would make, it’s that sometimes the prose feels a little overwritten in places. And, I wonder whether the three main characters, whose backgrounds are so different, would all write their journals in the same writing style. However, I respect an author who is willing to challenge the current prose conventions, even if the results are mixed.
A final note: Please don’t do what I did. PLEASE READ AMBERLIGHT FIRST! I didn’t, and spent too much time at the beginning of Riversend playing catch-up. Kelso does fill the reader in on the backstory, but I made unnecessary work for myself, trying to piece together the events of Amberlight at the same time as I was acclimating myself to the prose style. Read Amberlight first.
Amberlight & Riversend — (2007-2010) Publisher: Tellurith, the head of a great ruling House in Amberlight, inexplicably finds a battered outlander left for dead in the streets of the legendary city — and an oracle reveals that he must not die. The man, although stripped of his memory, may know of a threat to Amberlight’s unique possession: the motherlodes of the qherrique, the pearl-rock that gives their world its most powerful tool. Tangled in intrigue, insurrection and brutal warfare, it will take a cataclysmic upheaval for Tellurith and the stranger to begin to grasp the more-than-human mystery that brought them together.
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