Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


Onyx reviews: The River of Souls by Robert McCammon

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/01/2014

As Robert McCammon's series reaches its anticipated midpoint with book five of ten, Matthew Corbett, professional problem solver, finds himself in familiar territory: the Carolina colony where readers were first introduced to the young man in Speaks the Nightbird. There's even a satisfying cameo by a familiar character from that novel, but this story isn't about witchcraft, and Matthew has come a long way since his he was scrivener-apprentice to magistrate Isaac Woodward.

Matthew recently confronted his nemesis, Professor Fell (in The Providence Rider), and is at loose ends. His relationship with Berry Grigsby isn't doing well, either. When his boss at the Herrald Agency, Hudson Greathouse, suggests he accept a job that seems simple on the face of it (and well paid, to boot), he resists at first, but finally agrees to go to Charles Town to escort the daughter of a wealthy family to a dance. He expects her to be, at best, plain, given that there seems to be no one local willing to accompany her, so he's surprised to find she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen.

The reason why he has been hired becomes evident soon after the ball begins, when he is confronted by an enormous man with shaggy hair, a long beard, and questionable hygiene. The reclusive Magnus Muldoon has designs on Pandor Prisskitt, and he has a reputation for either killing or chasing off any man he perceives to be a rival. Muldoon challenges Matthew to a duel, but Matthew comes up with a unique—if highly improbable, verging on ridiculous—way to "defeat" the man and save the day.

Instead of returning to Manhattan, though, Matthew decides to look Muldoon up and offer to provide him some social skills. Muldoon, as it turns out, is much younger than he at first appears and is a skilled artisan, a glass blower who produces high quality works. While Matthew is visiting the man, an alert goes out from a nearby plantation: the owners' daughter, who Matthew met just hours before, has been stabbed to death and three slaves fled in the aftermath. A slave master accuses one of the trio of the crime, but Matthew has his doubts. He presents himself as the closest thing to "the law" in the area and insinuates himself into the investigation and the pursuit of the missing slaves, who now have bounties on their heads.

The hunt leads most of the able-bodied men of the area into a supposedly cursed region dominated by the Solstice, the so-called River of Souls. It's a dangerous region: the river is full of alligators and there are poisonous snakes and dangerous outcast natives in the woods. There are also rumors of an enormous beast called the Soul Cryer. The body count rises sharply very quickly, and soon there are only a few men left in pursuit of the accused killer. McCammon doesn't flinch from describing some grizzly, gruesome acts of violence. Though he has no stake in this battle, Matthew remains on the trail when many others turn back. He knows the truth and is determined to see justice done.

The River of Souls is an unusual entry in this series. Most of the regulars make scant appearances or aren't in the book at all. The identity of the killer is not a huge mystery, and much of the book is devoted to the intense, dangerous pursuit of three characters who readers have not met. The victim is only seen briefly, but the scene is memorable and her death comes as a shock since she is so vital and vibrant. Matthew doesn't have a client, per se, so he is acting mostly on his own behalf. The cast is large, but most of the men who set out after the slaves are canon fodder, without much depth and simple motives.

Magnus Muldoon is an interesting character, but somewhat stock: the mountain man with a heart of gold and a valuable skill who is loyal to the end, dogged in pursuit, and seemingly invulnerable. Of more interest is the mad woman Matthew and Muldoon meet at the last outpost on the river. Quinn lost her husband the previous summer and believes he has been reincarnated in Matthew. Her mania is, perhaps, Matthew's salvation, but it puts him in a very strange place when the book comes to an unresolved end, for The River of Souls is a cliffhanger, a bridge into the following novel, which will likely see Matthew coming face-to-face with Professor Fell once more.

One creative choice McCammon makes later in the book is to shift from exclusively Matthew's viewpoint to multiple viewpoint, which comes in handy when Matthew and Muldoon are separated but which some readers may find jarring after remaining inside Matthew's head for so much of the book.

The River of Souls is not, perhaps, the best entrypoint for readers unfamiliar with the previous four novels in the series, even though its story is more or less self-contained. There are references to many of Matthew's previous antics and several cameos by familiar characters from the past, including one whose appearance near the end of the book is the next best thing to deus ex machina. McCammon has a tendency to rely on convenient coincidences, some of which stretch at the bounds of credibility. 

Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent 2014. All rights reserved.