I have talked here before about how fraught it can be to read a first novel, particularly a first novel by a friend--how worried I can be that I won't like it, and what I will have to say to them if I don't.
It turns out that reading a last novel has some of the same degree of fraught built in. Kage Baker died last year, to the distress of the whole field as far as I can tell. I didn't come upon any obits for Kage that started, "Well, we didn't agree on a lot, but...," or any of the other formulas that translate as, "You probably came upon us screaming vile names at each other in the con suite, but in any case I'm not glad she's dead." She was not that sort of person and not that sort of writer, and she was not very old, and a lot of us didn't hear she was dying until shortly beforehand, and...yah. A good one gone too soon, by all reports. And this, The Bird of the River, was published posthumously. I really, really wanted to like it.
Thank heavens, I did.
It's a fantasy novel without a great deal of onstage magic, secondary-world fantasy in a world that is not polished and prettied, not focused on high courts and sorcery, but I felt that the grimy bits were not excessively grimy. They were not dwelt upon. For a book whose main character is a young girl with a drug addict mother and a younger brother to take care of, this was not a book that wanted to rub one's nose in how awful and unredeemed the world can be; really quite the opposite. Eliss is a character who squares her shoulders and gets on with it, who finds skills and food and a bright side, and builds another bright side out of whatever bright side she finds--not in a chirpy saccharine way, just matter-of-factly. Eliss may be, in fact, my favorite of Baker's heroines.
There's nothing wrong with the adult characters in this book, but I feel it's the child characters who really shine. The child characters carry some of the major burden of the worldbuilding and do it well: where adults know the proper thing to say, the younger children will blurt what the culture they live in actually practices, sometimes to the distress of other children around them. And Baker pays attention to having a lower-class working culture on the barge that is the title character: various people have to have turns minding the littlest kids or doing the laundry or cooking while shifts of work are done. Which sounds like the sort of dreadfully virtuous thing one discusses doing on a panel at a con but is built seamlessly into how things happen in the course of the book, who gets which pieces of information, who is there to hear which things and who is free to run after which adventures and like that.
This is not the type of secondary world fantasy wherein the fate of the world hangs in the balance, but it doesn't need to be; the characters are well enough done that the outcome of their lives is quite high enough consequence to carry the story.
Also I am a sucker for boats.