Kage Baker's tragic death in January 2010 robbed the SF world of one of its greats. Her last novel, The Bird of the River, was published later that year (I believe there are still some unpublished short stories, but this is the final novel). The story is written with the same quiet elegance as most of her work. This book is simply fantastic.
This is the story of a river boat named the Bird of the River and a young brother and sister who have to make their way on it after their drug-addicted mother dies in a horrible accident. They also have to figure out their place in the wider world, and thankfully their pseudo-family on the boat will help them with that. Young Eliss is the main character, a teenager who excels at being able to spot river snags that must be destroyed or maneuvered around. As the oldest, she has to take care of her half-brother, a boy with mixed heritage - he's half "Greenie," a race that is horribly looked down upon by the humans of this world. Add to the mix a new passenger who is travelling incognito to search for a lost member of his rich family and a ship's captain who gets wildly drunk every time they reach port, and the reader gets a sense that all is not right with Eliss's world.
The Bird of the River is set in the same universe as The Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag, Baker's previous fantasy novels. However, it is entirely self-contained; while there are a few references to the other two books, there is no connection between them. Instead, Baker has written a classic river journey novel populated by quirky characters that are exceptionally well-written.
There is an overarching story to the whole book, a thread that moves along like an undercurrent throughout the story, but the book is basically Eliss's story of growing up. She has been the main responsible person in her little family as they've travelled from place to place, her mother getting odd diving jobs to keep them alive until her addiction inevitably ruins it. Once Eliss and her half-brother are orphaned, she has to prove herself worthy of staying on the ship or else they will be put off. Once she does, the crew become like family to her, and they help her navigate the usual trials of a teenager, including young love.
There is a mixture of warmth and wonderful humor in Baker's prose (the ship's captain is a real treat, even more so once Baker reveals his secret). True poignancy tinges Eliss' story, as well as that of the young man searching for the lost family son. Krelan's story is the driving engine behind the whole book, even though it's not the main purpose of it. The two stories mesh together perfectly, much like the two characters' burgeoning relationship.
The Bird of the River is a fairly short book (268 pages in the hardcover) and incredibly tight - not a wasted word or storyline in it. Every word is important, even if its purpose is simply to build the characters into interesting people who readers can enjoy. It's quiet, possessing no broad themes like Baker's "Company" novels. This isnít an "exciting" book, but Baker's writing will suck you in anyway.
It's sad that Baker's death will rob the world of more tales like this one, set in a world that she had only explored in these three novels and a few short stories.