Jo Fletcher Books, p/b, Â£8.99
Reviewed by Catherine Mann
Four orphaned teenagers meet and become friends in Ireland. When Alan, Kate, Mark and Mo start sharing dreams, Alanâ€™s grandfather Padraig suggests itâ€™s no coincidence and tells them legends about the local rivers and the otherworldly gate on the summit of a nearby mountain. Mark and Moâ€™s sinister adopted father will soon take them back to England, so they set out to open the gate together while they still can. Pursued by shadows they manage to cross into another world. An unnerving magical woman saves them and gives them gifts that they donâ€™t understand. They end up joining a community of bear-like people and travel with them to escape the dark forces that plague the land. Each of the characters faces danger and hard decisions as they try to find the power that has called them to this place.
The Snowmelt River initially feels very traditional. The first section is set in a pastoral, myth-imbued landscape, and a small group of teenaged protagonists become friends and discover magic and other worlds. If youâ€™re familiar with fantasy youâ€™ll have read this sort of thing before. Once the characters pass out of our world the book takes on a life of its own, the world is very much its own thing, with interesting ideas presented throughout, though the plot doesnâ€™t stray far from genre traditions.
The four main characters provide the main points of view. Alan is visibly marked as special, heâ€™s the obvious hero and takes on a leadership role whilst learning about his new powers. Mo is the most mystically-inclined of the quartet back in Ireland, so itâ€™s no surprise that she turns out to have a powerful destiny. I found Mo to be the most likeable character and to have more interesting motivations than the others. I promise to make no further Narnia analogies, but Mark is the Edmund of the group. Itâ€™s possible that his snarky observations are meant to be funny, but mostly they just make him unlikeable. His motivation is nuanced and his jealousy largely understandable, but it is no surprise that he is the one who is tempted by the forces of darkness. His plotline is redemptive, but I canâ€™t help feeling that Iâ€™m not really meant to like Mark, so once he starts doing the right thing I donâ€™t warm to him. Kate does surprisingly little to influence the action. Her romantic relationship with Alan is there from the start but doesnâ€™t progress, which would be fine if Kate were given something else to do. As it is thereâ€™s no passion and the relationship isnâ€™t treated as important except when Alan wants a hug. Thereâ€™s the suggestion that Kateâ€™s role will develop in later volumes, but sheâ€™s largely overlooked.
The depiction of rural Ireland is full of striking imagery and nostalgia and the fantasy world is given the same treatment, so both places feel realistic. The fantasy elements are introduced through Irish mythology, and although a Gaelic flavour runs through the world building, there is plenty of originality. The mystical earth mother is a common mythical theme, although the character that embodies the idea here is unlike any version Iâ€™ve read before. Sheâ€™s somehow alien and comforting, down-to-earth yet deeply mysterious. She seems to be central to the charactersâ€™ abilities to access magic, though she remains an intriguing figure. Various races are introduced; the dwarf and witches are fairly familiar, both are given an Irish name and their own culture. The bear-like fisher people of the Olhiyu, with whom the characters travel, are something different. The main characters live with a whole tribe as they travel the eponymous river. Having the characters take a whole community on their quest is unusual, especially when itâ€™s one that is so foreign to them, and it makes for an interesting dynamic.
The antagonist is a shadowy, distant Dark Lord who has conquered and corrupted much of the land. He is barely seen in this book, though many of his minions are set against the protagonists and all are as you would expect the forces of darkness to be. There are some characters who are shown to be self-serving rather than evil, but they are still damned by their actions and the reader will have no difficulty in picking out which characters are on which side. This is a book thatâ€™s very black and white in its morality, and tonally has similarities to the work of Tolkien, even though it has a very different atmosphere. What most surprised me was the way the primary world and its plot threads were left behind so completely. There are easily-identifiable forces of good and evil inIrelandand the connections between the worlds are built up initially, but this build up seemed to lose all significance once the setting changed.
I had trouble deciding whether this is a book I would recommend to young adults. From the content it could easily be a young adult book, the main characters are teenagers and thereâ€™s plenty of violence but no sex. However it doesnâ€™t feel like modern young adult fiction. They might have mobile phones and computers but these characters donâ€™t feel like modern kids, thereâ€™s something old fashioned about the way they interact and entertain themselves. I canâ€™t help but feel that the characters would be better received by those who are nostalgic about their teenage years, rather than those currently going through them.
The Snowmelt River is an interesting read with an engaging secondary world. There is little for the reader to chew over once they have finished reading, as the expectation is that any lingering questions will be explained later. Itâ€™s clearly a first volume and successfully introduces the world, the characters and the tone as well as setting up events for the next volume. It works well as a magical adventure and will appeal to fans of traditional fantasy, and those that fancy some well-crafted escapism.