Separating fact from fantasy is no small order in The Riverman, Aaron Starmer’s first installment in a planned trilogy. And discerning what is real is a challenge for the reader as well as for 12-year-old Alistair Cleary, the well-meaning protagonist of this dark and multilayered novel set in a small town in the 1980s.
Odd girl-next-door Fiona Loomis has a proposal for Alistair: listen to her ramblings and write down her story. Sounds innocent enough, but Alistair soon learns that Fiona’s story is far from typical or even believable. She weaves a tale of traveling the magical, unknown world of Aquavania (via a portal in her basement). There, she creates her own reality and meets unusual characters along the way who tell her about the nefarious Riverman, who allegedly steals children’s souls.
In Fiona’s stories, time shifts; children disappear; and she struggles to live both in Aquavania and in what she calls the Solid World. But as confused and concerned as Alistair is, he finds himself strangely drawn to Fiona and begins to wonder if her stories are a cover for something dangerous or abusive happening in her family.
This tale of alternate realities may be a tad tough to follow (and a bit mature) for younger readers, but older preteens and teens will find this contemporary twisted and tumbled take on Through the Looking-Glass (with a few similarities to Tony DiTerlizzi’s WondLa trilogy) to be a compelling mystery. Alternate worlds may be the next dystopias, and Starmer is the one to pull it off.
Sharon Verbeten is a freelance writer and children’s librarian in De Pere, Wisconsin.