The River South (2019), the second RIDERS GUILD book, picks up Iset’s story starting when she is thirteen. This isn’t a warm and fuzzy mother-daughter relationship. Kieve left Iset with the Guild as an infant, and now has been missing for many years. The novel opens with a kidnapping or assassination attempt on Iset as she’s holed up in one of her favorite hiding places.
This attack draws the attention of the Lord of Kyst and his lover, Daenet, who are strangers to Iset, but whom readers will know if they’ve read Mapping Winter. They believe the motive may lie in the identity of Iset’s father. To keep her safe, they bring her on board Kyst’s boat, intending to take her home with them. But after a series of things go wrong, Daenet and Iset are left to travel overland alone, and to try and find safety and a livelihood while dodging continued attacks from a shadowy foe. All told, roughly a year passes during the events of the novel. Meanwhile, Iset also learns more about Kieve through her long-ago letters.
The teenager with a mysterious parentage, who turns out to be unusually talented in several areas, might seem like a well-trodden fantasy trope. Randall refuses to fall into cliché, however. Fantasy protagonists often have luck fall into their laps and are rewarded for breaking rules. Because of the agendas of the adults surrounding Iset, though, this isn’t the case for her. All of her actions have consequences (and sometimes there are consequences even when she hasn’t done anything wrong). In one scene, she rebels in an endearing way that, in many novels, would result in her skill and spirit being praised. Here, disaster strikes — part of the chain of events that leads to Iset and Daenet’s eviction from the boat. It’s as if Harry Potter caught the Remembrall, and McGonagall stormed in and led him off and really did expel him from Hogwarts.
Now that I’ve made The River South sound like a depressing book, it absolutely isn’t. Randall’s Cherek contains brutality, yes, but also nights of music under the stars, and shops full of fabrics in a thousand dazzling colors, and deeply complex characters who love each other in deeply messy ways. We discover all of this through the eyes of Iset, whose world was quite circumscribed until the day she boarded Kyst’s barge. We see equally fantastical sights in the Inguruki lands, through Kieve’s letters.
The prose is beautiful — and again, you really do need to pay attention to it. At one point I wasn’t paying enough attention, and Iset assumed a false name so smoothly that I spent a few pages thinking there was a whole other teenage girl in the party. As before, there’s no magic per se, though Iset gains a visionary or mystical streak after a near-death experience.
I think I detected some chemistry between Iset and a male character who’s older than she is. I like her, and I like him, and I’d even like them together if she were older, but the age difference made me apprehensive. As it turns out, nothing happened and I needn’t have fussed. It might be something to revisit in 4-5 years, though!
The ending, much like the story leading up to it, is not exactly what one might expect, nor do we get every answer we were hoping for. For a moment, it seems that it will take a more conventional path, and part of me wishes I’d gotten to see how that scenario would have played out — but Randall has one more twist up her sleeve. I hope she decides to write more in this universe, because I definitely want to see what lies ahead for Iset.
The secondary-world setting places The River South in the category of fantasy, but the book I was most reminded of while reading it was Nicola Griffith’s historical novel Hild. If you liked one, you’re likely to enjoy the other. They share similar themes of a young girl observing and learning about her world and her place in it, finding herself, and trying to assemble a family of choice, as well as lovely and sometimes challenging writing.