"The Waterborn," J. Gregory Keyes

Pros: Neat story; interesting characters; great concepts; vivid world
Cons: Unlikeable protagonist; acting out of character to further the plot; subtle inconsistencies
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 1/6/2003

In the great city of Nhol the princess Hezhi is about to come of age. She knows that when royalty come of age, they either go to the Hall of Moments to be with the rest of the court, or they get taken down the Darkness Stair, never to return. Several years ago Hezhi’s best friend and cousin disappeared down the Stair with the River’s priests; she’s been searching for him ever since. Now that she grows closer to her own coming of age, she realizes she’s been searching in the wrong direction. It isn’t his physical location she needs to discover–it’s an understanding of the Royal Blood itself. But she’s running out of time.

In Nhol the River is the only god, for he has eaten all others. In distant lands, however, gods are common. Perkar’s own family has a small amount of god-blood in it, and Perkar loves a stream-goddess. He has vowed to kill the great River that swallows her every moment of every day. But he has no idea yet what that will entail, and sets out on his quest despite the objections of the goddess he loves. That quest will take him to Nhol, and to Hezhi, who occupies his dreams. But does he go to save her, or to kill her?

Beautiful Backdrop

“The Waterborn,” by J. Gregory Keyes, details several fascinating cultures. These aren’t modern-day cultures with a few details changed; these are intricate and unusual societies that have enough similarities to old cultures of our own world that we can relate to them and, for the most part, understand them.

It’s fascinating to learn the history of Nhol and of Hezhi’s family. It’s interesting to compare the ideals of how the society sees itself, and the realities of how it works. I apologize for being somewhat vague here; the unraveling of Hezhi’s society is an interesting mystery, and one that I don’t want to spoil (even if it does unravel rather slowly at first).

Similarly, as Perkar journeys from his own land to Nhol, he meets all sorts of people of various types. He has to learn to adapt to their cultures, with varying degrees of success–and many degrees of failure. “The Waterborn” presents a lush and vivid world, well worth exploring.

Most of the characters are fascinating and fun to explore, from headstrong Hezhi to her half-giant bodyguard Tsem. In particular, Keyes seems very good at creating vivid, enjoyable, three-dimensional secondary characters. Because of this, I didn’t even mind when, on a couple of occasions, we end up seeing the story through the eyes of a minor character for just a small section or two. Usually that would be an annoying tease, hardly giving us enough time to get into a character before moving on, but Keyes does a good job of it.

On the other hand, Perkar is one of the major flaws in this book–he’s one of the two major protagonists, and yet he’s almost wholly annoying and unlikeable for most of the book. He goes beyond having the hero’s flaw. He does one stupid, arrogant, greedy thing after another for at least the first half of the story.

A Few Additional Details

Although I did enjoy “The Waterborn,” it has some rough spots. In at least one place it seems as though a character does something out of character in order to further the plot. Also, although this will be harder to explain, there are some subtle inconsistencies. For example, there are things about Hezhi’s attitude and the way that others see her that seem to imply one thing at one time and another thing at another. Sometimes the details seem to imply that she lives almost in isolation. At others they seem to imply that she deals with people regularly, and lives a mostly-normal life other than not being allowed access to some areas. Sometimes Hezhi thinks about the possibility of talking to her mother (the queen) as though it’s a perfectly normal thing to do, and then when she does see her mother she almost doesn’t recognize her (and it comes out that she hasn’t seen her in two years). I was constantly confused as to how, exactly, Hezhi lived, and the continuing story only somewhat alleviated that confusion.

I’m not sure whether these little inconsistencies indicate that Keyes just didn’t think his details through well enough, or that he simply left out some details that would have made things clearer to us. Certainly for the first part of the story things often seemed confusing in the palace, and I wished for at least a little more explanation, even if just a half-sentence here and there.

Overall I enjoyed the book. Hezhi’s story was interesting enough to make up for Perkar’s journey. And the various secondary characters helped to make up for Perkar’s attitude problems. I probably will pick up and read the sequel at some point, but I don’t feel compelled to run out and pick it up right now. (Note that this book does make a complete story in and of itself; you don’t need the sequel, thankfully.) This is a good book, and Keyes has some particular strengths (such as his secondary characters!), but “The Waterborn” has just enough flaws to make the experience of reading it less than delightful.

Additional note: There are some sexual situations in the book, although they aren’t terribly explicit. There is also some violence, although I’ve seen worse, and the sex doesn’t get mixed with the violence (apart from one guy who tries–and fails–to get a little too friendly with the princess).

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