Riverkeep by Martin Stewart

piranha stars green 4

“Glorious, and gloriously satisfying”


For generations, the job of Riverkeep has been passed on from father to son in Wulliam’s family. In a few week’s time when he turns sixteen, it will be his turn. But he’s not sure that Pappa’s narrow world will suit him. All he does is keep alight the lanterns that stop the river from freezing in winter and fish out the dead bodies that pass along it. Then tragedy strikes and Wulliam is forced to leave his home and row downriver to the sea in search of a magical monster which may be able to save his father from a terrible and puzzling fate. Along the way, Wulliam collects a motely band of passengers: a man made of straw and dead body parts who is on the run from dangerous assassin, a stowaway girl who is much stronger than she looks and a woman who may be a witch and who is treating a wooden baby as though it were living. Exasperating as his passengers may be, in the end all have a part to play in Wulliam’s quest.

Martin Stewart’s lovely, strange book creates a beautiful, creepy and believable world which fills the reader’s head with the mist and damp of the river, the splash of the oars and the terror of the dreadful creatures that live there. Each chapter is prefaced with an extract from some work describing the natural history, history or culture of Wulliam’s world which serves to add authenticity and to do away with the need to interrupt the plot with explanation. Wulliam, all at sea since he left his home, rudderless without his father to guide him, is a real, human boy, compassionate and impatient, irritable and full of fear. The characters who surround him are larger than life, impossible people with impossible aims that make Wulliam’s quest to find a magical cure for what ails his father seem utterly reasonable. It’s everything you would expect from a quest story: sudden turns of fortune for good or ill, all-is-lost moments, failure of nerve and moments of great courage and – of course – the plucky little nobody standing up to the enormously powerful. Glorious, and gloriously satisfying.

In spite of the age of the protagonist – which can usually be used as a guide – I would not say this book should be firmly classed as ‘young adult’. It’s perfectly suitable for the most able middle grade readers. There are some fairly gruesome parts and the odd bit of innuendo between a couple of the characters, though probably less so than you’d get in the average pantomime. The point of view is for the most part Wulliam’s, though we do also see his passengers before they join his, a few of the characters he doesn’t meet but whose actions affect his quest and, from time to time, the view of the mormorach, the dreadful creature Wull is pursuing. The language is playful and inventive and the author indulges in atmospheric scene-setting which never ceases to thrill.

Did I love Riverkeep? Yes I did.

Claire Watts

More to Read!

If you love Riverkeep, take a look at the rich fantasy worlds of Ursula le Guin and Philip Pullman.

Claire Watts writes and edits fiction and non-fiction for children and young adults. Her new YA novel, Gingerbread & Cupcake, is just out. 

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