Filler content with a river between worlds

A review that originally appeared in Maelstrom #7 back in 1995:-

Riverrun by S. P. Somtow. Published by Orbit. Paperback, 257pp, £4.99.

Born in Bangkok, educated at Eton and Cambridge, now a resident of California, S. P. Somtow comes from a cosmopolitan background and this wealth of cultural diversity is reflected in his fiction. Somtow won the prestigious John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 1981 and has written eighteen books in science fiction and related genres. To readers in this country he is perhaps best known for his horror novel Vampire Junction and its sequel Valentine, two books that stunningly transplanted the age old myth of the vampire into a modern, media-dominated landscape.

Riverrun is set in a cosmos of innumerable dimensions and realities, many of which have been thrown into a state of constant flux by the events that form the book’s backdrop. Running between them is the great river of the book’s title, a thread upon which countless worlds are strung, and their only hope of stability. Such is the epic scope of Somtow’s vision, but at the heart of the book and its mighty conflicts is a simple story about two families and their different approaches to life. On the one hand is King Strang, whose madness threatens to unhinge the cosmos itself, and his warring offspring, pale Prince Ash, the vampire Thorn and the weredragon Katastrofa Darkling. On the other hand is the poet Philip Etchison, his wife Mary who is dying of cancer, their children Joshua and Theo. The two families represent different forms of bonding; the ties of love that heal and renew, the chains of hate that enslave and destroy. In the grotto deep below a Chinese restaurant built in the middle of the Arizona desert their worlds collide with far-reaching results.

Theo Etchison is the key to it all, the hub round which everything else must turn. Locked up in the body of this young boy is the ultimate power of a Truthsayer. Theo must discover this potential in himself and learn to use it before those who seek to control him destroy all that he holds dear. The boy must become a man.

Vampire Junction was remarkable for its imagery and that quality is shared by this latest book. The reader is plunged into a world of lizard warriors and fire-belching dragons, Chinese magicians and Indian shamen, giant castles that crown unscaleable peaks and cities that float through the air. Somtow throws everything but the proverbial kitchen sink into this cultural melting pot and the result is a feast of colour and spectacle. In contrast to this and effectively counterbalancing it is the believability of the main characters. The Etchison family may be strangers in a strange land but they still have very human concerns, such as weight loss and sexual frustration. Theo might be the saviour of the universe, but he still has to put up with his big brother’s moods.

What must be conceded, despite the vividness of Somtow’s writing, is that there is little in the way of genuine invention. So many of the book’s ideas will seem, if not clichéd, overly familiar to the veteran reader of fantasy. There are echoes of Zelazny’s Amber, Farmer’s World of Tiers, and the Moorcockian Multiverse, while Theo could easily pass for a young Thomas Covenant, sans ring and long trousers. There is little that is new. And not a lot actually seems to happen, regardless of all the pyrotechnics and often frantic activity. By the end we are more or less back at the point we started out from, and poor Theo has it all to do over again. Ostensibly the first volume of a series, in retrospect Riverrun seems more like a prospectus for events to come than an integral part of some major storyline. The scenery you pass through on this journey may well be of more account than whatever destination the author has in mind.

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