I am mildly obsessed with whales, an obsession I usually trace back to my childhood reading of Moby Dick. Melville’s novel remains a favourite, even as my understanding has matured from "evil men obsessed with killing whales" (like all good children, I was cheering for the whale with very little consideration of the human cost) to a broader understanding of the novel as a reflection of a particular kind of humanity. Moby Dick traces the reduction of Ishmael, Queequeg, and the rest of the crew from an interconnected community (consider the focus on the warmth of Queequeg’s arm around Ishmael, the famous scene of the men massaging the spermaceti together, the attention paid to the clear roles everyone plays on the ship, scenes of loving playfulness, of ordered connectivity of the beginning) to degraded and alienated individuals, desperate for revenge, survival, barely human by the time the whale finally, finally wins. This corruption of community is foreshadowed by the name of the ship, the Pequod, memorialising the first nation of Native Americans to be destroyed by that first "great community" of colonisers, John Winthrop’s Puritans. A community which destroys in order to sustain itself cannot, in Moby Dick, remain a community. This loss of community necessarily has repercussions for its characters: going from warm humans in their touching of each other, their connectivity, to cold creatures of revenge.
It was the link to Moby Dick, mentioned in several reviews, which first attracted me to Martin Stewart’s Riverkeep, and the initial signifiers are there: a one-legged sea captain, a white sea creature proving to be nearly unkillable, a growing sense throughout the book of the desperation such a prize can breed. But Riverkeep is not a simple echo of Moby Dick with added fantasy elements (of course, Moby Dick has its own heightened reality, not that far removed from fantasy). Its mythology is too rich, and its fantasy elements too well realised. And its protagonist, Wulliam, is no aimless Ishmael, longing for the sea. On my first read through, I found myself slightly disappointed by this; where was my whale? Where was my rumination on obsession and the breakdown of community? Yet the further you get into Riverkeep, the more it reveals itself as a reversal of Moby Dick’s trajectory: from isolation and obsession towards community—towards humanity.
The novel begins with Wull, a teenage boy who resents the obligations water puts on him: he is to inherit the position of Riverkeep from his father. The Riverkeep is responsible for lighting the lights on the river which keep sailors and locals safe from drowning or disappearing under the ice, and retrieving the bodies when this fails to work. (Crucially, this is an important job for the community in which Wull and his pappa live.) The extreme discomfort of this work is vividly evoked; the winter world the story opens in is made up of cruel, deadly ice (its victims still often to be found in the river and the ice) and sharp, cutting cold. It is not appealing, not least because the river is murderous and unwelcoming and furthermore surrounded by dangerous wildlife. There is no sense of Ishmael’s pining here. What there is instead is Wull’s love for his pappa and a sense of homeliness and, significantly, belonging. This is destroyed when Pappa is dragged under the river and is returned changed—possessed by a creature who only wants to feed and feed, and who does not recognise Wull at all. It is the desire to save his father from this possession which sets Wull off on his journey to find the mystic white beast (an eel, not a whale here—an extremely creepy and occasional point of view character—nightmare fuel), some part of which may be able to save his father from the Bohdan inside him.
This journey, by bata (an almost-sentient boat) down the river to the sea, makes up the majority of the novel, and this is where the novel becomes particularly interesting. Stewart introduces some lightness here, elements of the picaresque introduced through various happenings during the trip, although the horror and danger of the world are never far away. A lot of this stems from the travelling companions Wull finds along the way (reminiscent of Dorothy’s assembled entourage in The Wizard of Oz, another novel which Riverkeep owes a certain debt). First to join is Mix, a stowaway; she is quickly followed by Tillinghast, a grotesque of a man carrying precious cargo; and Remedie, who carries with her a small wooden baby. The insults and jokes between these characters more than the events around them carry the book (as other reviews have said the pacing of the novel is patchy). It is also their plotlines—particularly Tillinghast’s—which have the most resonance. Tillinghast is a homunculus, patched together from body parts and straw, a Frankenstein’s monster whose incredibly effective and creepy first introduction in the book is being tortured and threatened with death. This threat has no effect because, as Tillinghast tells his captors, he is not alive (a trait he shares with Remedie’s wooden baby, Bonn). Yet a closer inspection shows the baby breathing and growing warm—slowly but surely. And thus also with Tillinghast, who is on the run with a mandrake he has stolen because, as Remedie points out, he recognises himself in it—another almost human. Tillinghast is the liveliest character in these pages (although he is well-matched with both Remedie and Mix) and his sprightliness, rudeness, sexual humour, and seemingly voracious appetites make him a vivid and engaging, if often unlikable character. Close up and in the company of Wull, Remedie, and Mix who may not like him, but at least engage with him, the reader cannot fail to recognise him as human, not least because, Remedie’s teasing aside, they all recognise each other as human and deserving of that recognition.
It is this theme in the book which worked best for me: what makes us human? And as for Melville, so for Stewart—what makes us human is a sense of responsibility towards others, an interconnectedness. Pappa’s possession is marked by the fact that he doesn’t recognise Wull and that he doesn’t care about being the Riverkeep—rejecting both family and community. Remedie’s child seems to be coming alive in part through the force of her belief and, eventually, the belief of her travelling companions. Tillinghast’s humanity is continually disregarded and discounted, by those he encounters and eventually by himself, until a meeting with his creator grounds the growing sense of responsibility he has been feeling towards Wull, Mix, and Remedie. Yet his recognition of, and sense of obligation towards, the mandrake foreshadows this revelation: Tillinghast has a sense of community. It’s just that until now, no humans have given him any reason to include them in it.
Tillinghast’s journey is interestingly the inverse of Wull’s—as Tillinghast becomes more involved with his companions, Wull remains apart, focused on his pappa and moving as quickly as possible down the river. He leaves behind his responsibilities to the river, and eventually (spoiler!) betrays one of his companions in order to achieve his goals. We’re not really given enough time before the quest begins to know what Wull was like before tragedy struck. Because the rest of the journey is bound up with his descent into obsession, we never really get a true sense of him, although there are scenes with Mix and Remedie which allow him to become more than just a grim presence driving the boat on. It is only at the end, when there is another example of the human’s victory over the inhuman, that Wull fully comes into himself as a character—and this too comes about through acceptance of responsibility and communal interconnectedness, and actions which prove his commitment.
The world Stewart creates around these characters works wonderfully on its own, but also supports and enhances this theme. The magic of this world is not comforting, it can’t save anyone (apart from maybe, maybe, pappa). Instead it’s a function of a world which both creates homunculi and mandrakes, and refuses them their humanity. The rules of the world are established in the chapter openings, snippets from history books, an encyclopaedia, and instruction manuals, beautifully rendered—this is one of the book’s other wonders, a sense of an old world which reminds one a little of Tolkien, but with fewer songs and more historical pastiches (which is to say, more to my taste). There are echoes of Melville here as well, without the need to pause the plot of a chapter or two to discuss the finer points of whaling. On homunculi, an excerpt has this to say: that they "are officially classified as 'unalive', however, rather than dead, owing to the theological complexity and their outward display of human physiology and function. There are frequent instances of their having demonstrated empathy, compassion—and even love." This quotation is a good illustration of the depth given to the way that magic, history, and society function in Riverkeep—gesturing at the existence of religious orders, at the political and philosophical complexities that have to be dealt with, the university’s (who published the encyclopaedia this comes from) investment in framing debates.
The quotation also illustrates a very real cognitive dissonance: the ability to see something as "human"—possessing qualities of "empathy, compassion, love" which are then also claimed as solely human emotions—yet also dismiss it as "unalive," which is to say not fully human. Tillinghast’s right to self-determination, to self-preservation, is still under debate—as with Bonn, the baby, and the mandrake itself. Stewart dramatizes this debate in several ways, from Tillinghast’s internal monologue, to the snippets of historical thinking, to Remedie, Mix, and Wull, discussing whether to throw the mandrake overboard. However, Wull’s pappa is also part of this discussion: he is visibly disappearing, his skin being described as increasingly hanging off his skeleton, his voice and mind taken over by the Bohdan. How can he be seen to be human if Bonn cannot, if Tillinghast (whose voice rings out clear throughout the book) can’t? Stewart keeps this discussion at the heart of the book and in doing so, makes it more than a quest narrative: like Moby Dick, it becomes a book about ethics and about community. Unlike Moby Dick, it offers the possibility of a positive outcome.
This risks making the book sound incredibly serious and dry, which is far from the truth. Part of what makes Tillinghast so brilliant, for example, is how irrepressible he is, rude and perverse, absolutely refusing to beg or perform submission in order to fit in or to be accepted as human. He and Remedie have a delightfully combative relationship, where she matches him insult for insult and shuts down his innuendo and bawdiness. And Mix, the runaway and stowaway child who is hiding something, is playful and direct, as well as being a no-nonsense carer for pappa while Wull steers the Bata. The world around these characters, as I said, is wonderfully, and profoundly creepily realised—it feels simultaneously ordered in the sense of a well-established mythos and system of magic, and chaotic, as characters reveal themselves to be less trustworthy than initially assumed, and murderers and thieves hide in the endless shadows which loom on either side of the rivers. There are also suspenseful and dramatic scenes of hunting in between the chapters concerned with the journey down the river. We see various sea monster hunters try to take down the great white eel, and these have all the panoramic horror and disaster to satisfy anyone who thinks the hunting scenes are the best part of Moby Dick—or indeed, enjoys a good shark movie, or monster narrative. The book is not without its flaws: the pacing took a while to fully capture me, and Wull is not the most engaging protagonist. But ultimately, Riverkeep is an incredibly enjoyable fantasy read, a beautifully realised world and universe, with its own rules and laws, and with its moral debates and ethical dilemmas integrated so you only slowly realise: the whale, the eel, the mormorach is secondary. It is the human community which matters. In Riverkeep, the characters realise this in time—and avoid the fate of Melville’s doomed crew.
 The best version of this reading is C. L. R. James’s incredible Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, which also suggests the anonymous crew as a utopian alternative to the novel’s eventual conclusion, and in its reflections on totalitarianism, capitalism, and alienation, could not be more timely.