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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
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.
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