Ever since seventeen-year old River can remember, she’s always had the real sense that she is in the wrong place—that she is wrong. Because of this, she battles a constant restlessness that consumes her. Running is the only thing that helps.
Another reason, she knows she’s wrong?
She can see the light around a person. Everyone gives off energy and somehow, River can see a bit if it. She knows when someone’s good or bad. She just doesn’t know what a blurry light means, like the light around the creepy new kid, Wicked.
Upon seeing him, something inside her breaks open; a crack along some forgotten wall that frees a painful wave of raw emotion and faint visions. And emerald-eyed boy that River doesn’t remember, but knows she should.
After Wicked reveals his violent, supernatural side, River’s world explodes and everything she thought was real, fades away. Taken from her life in Georgia, River is forced into the dangerous, but beautiful, self-sustaining-power-filled-live-in-the-trees-like-Robin-Hood Fair world that has been impatiently awaiting her return.
Right off the bat I have a confession to make. Young adult is not my usual genre to read. I have never read Harry Potter, Twilight, or Hunger Games. I know, I can hear the gnashing of teeth and the clicking of buttons as people unfollow me. It is just not my thing.
So what the hell? Some of you may be asking. Why are you reading/reviewing Ryen Lesli’s (AKA, The Witches’) River then?
To be frank, I was intrigued by her premise. Listening to her interviews and her description of what she wrote and why she wrote it made me decide I would give it a whirl. Now it wasn’t the fact that she said that River came to her in a dream (while that is pretty cool too, and her story about her dream is fascinating. Check out her interview if you are curious.) But hey, there’s a lot of authors out there that have had books and characters inspired by dreams, myself included. Tales inspired by dreams are literally as old as humanity. Some of the most famous pieces of literature, The Quran, the Bible, The Divine Comedy, so on and so forth were inspired by dreams.
So, what made me want to jump out of genre and pick up something that I would NOT normally read? It was the promise of something—different. Ryen describes herself as raising three teenage heathens, and she refused to backdown on the language and style of her story. Multiple agents refused the book due to her use of swear words and themes that were deemed inappropriate for a Young Adult audience.
I get it, I really do. Literary Agents are looking at the market. They want something that they think will sell. I am a writer, and I check out #MSWL. I see some of the posts. Everyone is looking for the next [INSERT CURRENT POPULAR BOOK HERE]. They have to; they are out to make money. They don’t work for free. And let’s be honest. People dream of being the next J.K. Rowling. The next Stephen King. They don’t dream of having their books pulped after three months because no one bought it.
But like other authors, when I am querying, the question that stumps me/irritates me is:
What book is your book like? Who is your writing like?
It can’t be anyone too famous or too popular. It can’t be anyone too obscure. You also sometimes feel like, wait, I thought I was supposed to be writing something different, right? It feels like a trick question.
Really; what they want to know is, who is the market for this book.
Reading Ryen Leslie’s River. I can answer that. Very easily.
As I sat on my couch, computer in my lap, scrolling through the pages, I turned to my husband and said,
“HOLY S—T, Ray! I’m in my niece’s head!
Hell, I’m in MY head when I was 15.”
Yes, there I was. Back in those angsty, awkward, hormone-fueled, high-drama teenage years.
Whoa Nellie! Kind of a scary place to be. More frightening than some of the horror that I like to write.
Everything was so important. The world was going to end every single week.
Ryen’s characters talk and act like real teenagers. Not like adults think that teens should act. No. These kids swear. They obsess about their bodies. They wonder about their sexuality, both their own and others. There’s no filter or political correctness. They haven’t learned that yet. They’re still figuring that out, and growing. And that’s okay.
Now, add in the fact that though her mother has been raising her as a human for the last twelve years, she’s actually a Fair, a sort of Fairy Princess with supernatural powers. Now you have a recipe for geeking-out.
Yes, this is the kind of book my teenage self would have eaten up like a hot fudge sundae. My D&D playing, fencing, Dragon Lance-Reading, drama club-participating, math team mega-nerd would have been all over this. Oh, my friends and I would have shared this book amongst ourselves at school. We would have made costumes, assigned ourselves characters and probably even done re-enactments.
Now before you think I am relegating her book the realm of nerds only, that is not the case. In 1994 (my sophomore year of high school) Interview with the Vampire was released as a movie. This was all the rage in high school. Though she published it in the 1970’s it became “the” book that was passed around school in the two years leading up two the movie actually being released (Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise AND Antonio Banderas, in one movie—yeah raging hormones indeed). It was not really the kind of book my mom thought was appropriate for me to read. Didn’t stop me, barely slowed me down. My more popular (and more worldly) neighbor made sure I got a copy of not only that, but A. N. Roquelaure’s (Anne Rice’s erotica pen name) Sleeping Beauty series. Admittedly, I liked Interview with the Vampire, but I was a little too immature for the rest. They didn’t corrupt me, like some might worry. I frankly was just too naïve/innocent to connect with the material at that stage in my development. I just didn’t get it, so it was more like, shrug, what’s the big deal?
But back to Ryen’s book. This is the kind of book that speaks to a lot of teens that imagine or wish they were something else. The market for this book is definitely the twelve to 25-year-old crowd. The writing style and language doesn’t really work for an older crowd, but really speaks to this generation. This is how they talk, whether we want to acknowledge that or not.
Speaking of talking, I sense the clutching of pearls at “the swear words.”
Oh dear. I realize that it is not very refined, and yes, we should be encouraging kids to speak to each other respectfully. On the other hand, what I really enjoyed about her writing style is, this is how kids talk to each other. I think back to how my cousins and I talked to each other growing up and the things I thought in my head. We purposefully thought up the most horrible, nasty, terrible things we could say to each other. And we reveled in it. Don’t even get me started on the shade I threw at my mother. I don’t have kids of my own, but I volunteer at high schools and junior high. The kids feel free to say things around me that they wouldn’t say around other adults. Their parents would be appalled.
Side note, loved River constantly referring to her mother as “the f–king Queen.” Would also love to have been in Beth’s head and seen some of the shade mom is throwing back at her rebellious little witch.
Quite frankly, Ryen’s writing is tame in comparison to some of the things I said a teen. And I was a “good” kid, and honor student. I have a newsflash for some parents out there. If you think that your kids are not talking to each other like this, I have bad news for you. But then, nothing I will say will change your mind. You will probably also not believe me when I show you the statistics that they are also sexting each other, contemplating drugs, sexuality, self-harm, suicide, and other “adult” issues. It’s always someone else’s kid that’s doing these things, not your own, right?
Whether you believe me or not, now that I have established the audience for this book and the general plot for this book, time to delve into the characters and themes.
Ryen does a great job in the first three chapters of establishing River as an intriguing character and setting a fast pace. There’s no way that you’re putting this down until you find out why River and her mother have to run from Wicked, the creepy boy at school dating her friend Skye.
Mother vs Daughter
“You will thwart me at every step, but when it comes to a struggle between mother and daughter my little one, remember…mothers have the advantage of knowing not only how and why they behave, but how daughters behave as they do. For mothers were all daughters once, but daughters take their time to learn to be mothers…”
Margarethe to Iris in Confessions of an Ugly Step Sister, Gregory McGuire
I have argued this before in one of my other reviews. Disney claims that Beauty and the Beast is a “Tale as Old as Time.” I would argue there’s an older tale. Its archetype permeates our culture and literature. It’s the push and pull between mothers and daughters. The expectations that are placed on one another, and often, the failures to live up to these expectations. The tales of natural love, hate, and resentment, that builds; especially in the teenage years can be seen repeating through all cultures.
On one side you have the mother, making choices and sacrifices, expecting love and gratitude in return. On the other side you have the daughter, attempting to learn and grow. At times these choices run counter to this growth. Ryen demonstrates this beautifully between headstrong River and her mother Beth.
Beth has been hiding River in the human world to keep her safe. She is a queen, subjugated to living with creatures she considers beneath her. She is making sacrifices to keep her daughter, her legacy and her kingdom, safe. She expects gratitude and compliance for this when they finally return to the beautiful world of the Fairs.
Ryen’s description of Beth made me think of Arthur’s mother from Mary Stewart’s Arthurian Saga. Beth is a Queen first, and a mother second. She will do everything in her power to protect her daughter and her legacy, but she is not the cozy, touchy-feely, “let’s-share-our-feelings Tampax commercial” mom. She has a kingdom to run on her own and a daughter to keep safe.
“Why didn’t we just come back here?” she asked.
Her mom made an impatient noise, waving her hand. “Your father had been murdered by Obsidian and his mate, Angel. It tore our world apart, leaving us undefended. The power he and Angel have? River, it is unforgiving. I did what I had to, to ensure the throne stayed pure and yet, there you sit, acting as if I did this to be mean to you.”
While River has sensed her whole life that something was wrong, she’s not ready for this dramatic shift. Everything changes, even her physical appearance.
What. The. Fuck? Um, right, ohkay…well…her skin was uh… gold. Like gold, gold. Holy shit, her skin was gold! It wasn’t like, crazy gold but she was definitely…gold. There was a mesmerizing luminous sheen to it. The colors so bright, she looked photoshopped or—wait a second—why did her lips look like that? She peered closer, opening her mouth, stretching it out a couple of times.
Her mother erases her old life once again, “to keep her safe.” Her mother sweeps her away from modern day Georgia, with cell phones and internet. They are suddenly in the Ebb, located on the California coast, the world of the Fair that sits in parallel with the human world.
The best way to describe it would be they live almost like they’re Amish, growing things from the earth on farms, but also using their natural magic. She’s finding out that so much information has been withheld, manipulated and twisted in the name of protecting her, she is lost. A full-grown adult with mature rationalizing capabilities would be hard pressed to cope. Hand this to a hormonal, immature teen, yeah—not going to go over well. Ryen does a good job of creating a relatable character struggling with this new world, which should be the world of dreams, but it is hard for teenage River to come to grips.
Society wants us to pretend like mothers and daughters have this beautiful, natural, perfect bond. Movies, commercials, greeting cards surround us. Filled with loving mothers and daughters shopping, drinking coffee together and getting matching manis and pedis. This is what we as women get shoved down our throats. Oh no, it can be more like two cats squaring off in an alley with their hackles raised; especially during the teenage years. There was a reason Amy Tan’s the Joy Luck Club was so popular. It portrayed the rift that can occur between the desires of mothers and daughters and the expectations they set for one another.
She looked at her mom, really looked at her. “My life has been nothing but lies! I don’t know how I am supposed to feel or—or how I shouldn’t!” she snapped. “Talk about me being selfish—poor Beth, she was homesick and couldn’t worship her Goddess out in the open! Boofuckin’-hoo.” River felt satisfaction when her mom’s face turned red with shocked outrage. “Well, thanks for your uh, sacrifices. It must suck to be a mother. Now, lemme explain this so my Queen understands it. This is where you get up and take your unwanted ass back to the Castle, ‘cause I got all this,” River assured her, waving her hand.
The struggle between angsty River and as I mentioned before, “the F—king Queen,” made me chuckle, over and over. I may have to send a copy of this book to my sister just so she can laugh. You can practically cut the tension between these two as mom and daughter square off. Obviously, we’re seeing this all from River’s perspective, but you can easily picture what is going through Queen Mum’s head through Ryen’s showing of emotions. You can tell the Fairy Queen is longing to magically b—-h-slap her lippy princess.
River’s mouth fell open. “Mom—”
“You will address me as the Queen,” she interrupted River, her expression cold.
In the loud silence of the car, River’s face turned bright red. “How about the fuckin’ Queen?” she wanted to snarl, but she somehow kept her mouth shut. God, she hated her mother.
I can’t wait to see how this plays out as River has to find her way through life not only as an adult, but an eventual ruler. How will she live up to, or fail to meet her mother’s expectations? What clashes, or mending, in their relationship will occur as River develops?
Freewill Warriors vs. the Fairs
“To be Chaste or Be Chased”
This is one of my favorite taglines from the book Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked. It speaks a lot to the cultural shift we are seeing in society today as both men and women struggle to find their own voices and sexuality. No one can deny that there has been a dramatic revolution over the past century, and it is accelerating in recent years. Behaviors and activities that were normalized and accepted ten years ago are being recognized as inappropriate. The roles of men and women are being redefined in our society, and it will have an impact on every aspect of our lives.
Meanwhile we have the teen years of exploration and development. The awkward and frustrating years where we are growing changing and trying to develop an identity separate from our parents. We are defining what we want and what we need sexually. Unfortunately, the mixed messages we get from society, the media, our parents and our friends can shape this development, for better or worse.
We think we outgrow this as adults, leave it behind, like we do fairy tales, but in reality, we do not. The hang-ups and insecurities we had as teens can linger long into adulthood. They haunt us as we grow, running through our relationships and lives like threads in a tapestry. Sometimes, binding it together. At others, ruining the picture.
What will we do about our desires/sexuality? For us, we have free will. Our desires are determined by hormones, attraction, upbringing, culture, etc.
In the River’s new world, her mate is pre-destined. Even though she may have desires for someone else, her fate is set. Ryen sets up four very compelling characters and their reactions to their destined mates, drawing unique parallels to ourselves:
The irony is that even though we have free will, due to our upbringing, cultural expectations about sex and sexuality, attachment style, etc., we can have these same reactions to becoming intimate. These reactions can both bring a relationship closer, or tear it apart. Read any contemporary romance novel, and you will see some aspect of the above in the plot.
To be honest, I am not really into the “Will they/won’t they” kind of romance. But in this case, once again, it works. Why? Because they’re teenagers.
I remember those years of the high drama, back and forth romances between my friends where it was break-up and make-up daily.
In Ryen’s story, unlike adult romances where you just want to scream at the characters to get over it, I can understand the back and forth and the miscommunications due to lack of maturity. It makes sense in the context of her story and makes the characters believable and relatable.
*Though I have to admit I was still screaming at them, “Just get over it and screw already! Dammit, Ryen you’re a tease!!!!”
Adding to the complexity of this issue is that River has tasted free will, something most of her kind cannot comprehend. She was raised in the “Outside,” what the Fair refer to as the Human world. She was allowed to flirt and tease boys with the only consequence being hurt feelings or even a broken heart.
The laws of this new world are more binding. The bitterness over not being able to choose who she wants adds additional conflict to the story and drives a wedge between herself and her destined mate, Wolf (also known as Luca). A boy who she chose long ago and then was forced to forget due to her mother’s need to hide her. Wolf now struggles to forgive her for forgetting him (even though she had no choice), but he also grapples with the guilt of not having watched over her like he promised. These two lovers will battle with themselves and each other to see if they can make their destiny work.
“The Warriors here will not be like the human boys on the Outside.”
“Well, I can see that,” River said, feeling defensive.
“Can you? A human boy has a certain freedom. I know that out there, you are allowed to be together, that you kiss and touch and nothing is thought of it. However, it is different here. A Warrior does not have that freedom. You need to know, River, that we mate for life. Once a claim is made on you, or you claim another, that is it. The claim is binding. Cat is tender-hearted and favors you. Be gentle, River. You could hurt him easily.”
Free will and River’s struggle within the new confines of her magical world is a deep theme of this book. There are many more instances to draw on, but I will allow the reader to find and ponder these for themselves.
I can’t finish this review without bringing the antagonists into it. Ryen paints a chilling picture of some truly creepy antagonists. We meet twins, Wicked and Ghost, at the very beginning, who force a reaction from River that shatters the carefully built illusions her mother has created to keep her safe. Out to capture River, Beth and River flee back to the safety of the “Ebb,” their home.
She introduces Angel, their mother, a short time later. By the end of the short scene, there is no doubt in the reader’s mind that there is something seriously wrong with this character.
We don’t hear much about these characters again until the very end of the book. At the risk of spoilers, and the fact that I want those who read Ryen’s book to experience the intense scene between River and Angel for themselves I will defer from describing it much. I will say that Ryen sets up the suspense and the conflict between this wicked woman-creature and River, leaving the reader thinking, WTF?
*For me this was like the classic horror scene where you’re watching the character, getting ready to open the closet door where something nasty is waiting. You’re shaking your head saying, “Don’t do it—you’ll be sorry. But they do it anyway.”
My one criticism would be that I would loved to have had more scenes showing these antagonists’ maneuverings throughout the story. She’s created fascinating, complex, and ambiguous villains. Their ultimate motives are up for grabs, so it would have been great to have more of them. But I can see where Ryen was starting to become constrained by length, and possibly these ended up on the chopping block, sacrificed to the editing gods.
Once again, this was not my normal genre of reading, but this was a fun and somewhat reflective trip back in time to my own awkward teenage years. It sparked many an interesting conversation between me and my husband about being a teenager and what we thought was important, compared to now. I think that Ryen’s story and writing style will resonate with both young adults and even some parents who are struggling to relate to their teens.
You can read more of DM reviews on dmshepard.com
Click on the Goodreads tab and see what everyone is saying about RIVER!