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S P Somtow - RiverrunA few words on Riverrun, the initial installment in the trilogy of the same name by S P Somtow (aka Somtow Sucharitkul, award-winning author, feted composer/conductor and general busybody), a fascinating escapist 'dark fantasy', starring Vampires, Dragons, and the river that runs through the entire Universe, holding together all worlds – all wrapped up in a King Lear based background scenario. A great book, aimed at the older Adolescent to Adult market.

The story finds Theo Etchison on a family trip through the desert, on their way to bring their moribund mother to yet another cancer clinic (“movies can show everything about death except the smell”, he remarks). When they stop at a Chinese Restaurant in the middle of nowhere Theo is abducted into a parallel world by Peter Cushing Cornelius Huang, the herald of Prince Thorn. To Thorn Theo is not just a boy with an overly active imagination and weird dreams – he calls him ‘Truthsayer’, and worships/fears him as one who can see things as they are, who can read and ride the river which connects all worlds and realities.
Thus Theo gets involved in a major fight to save (?) the universe by deciding who controls it, and especially who controls the river. His family also get drawn into the fight between mad King Strang, and his three estranged children, between whom he tried to split up his Kingdom (ring a bell?).

The main concept of the universe the story plays out in is classic King Lear, but with an extra twist of parallel universes. These are modelled on the EWG (Everett Wheeler Graham) Model of the meaning of the quantum eigenvector (go look it up), with slight but definite differences between worlds, and (some) people able to switch from one universe to the another. Those who don’t have this power, but get drawn across have to die to cross the river (spot the Greek mythology reference…), one example in case is Theo’s brother Josh, who gets abducted by Thorn’s sister ‘Katastropha Darkling’. The river that links all worlds and realities is not a new concept, either, but is used in a very literal and rather inventive fashion here (the nearest I’ve seen to this would be Moorcock’s Eternal Hero saga that made use of a similar device).
One of the things that really made the book for me is the poetry in it – not only does it quote Li Po and other Japanese poets frequently, but it also features the poetry of Phil Etchison, Theo’s father, in various editions, which change with the shifts in worlds, realities, and the state of his mind (despite them being published – EWG again!). It’s very evocative poetry, and the subtle changes in style, meaning, and imagery are highly fascinating.

The names Somtow chose for his characters are highly indicative of their roles – starting with Theo (‘God’ – where do you think theology comes from?), his brother Joshua, fighting a big battle, and their mother Mary, the mother of Theo (kid you not!), who’s a revered as a goddess in one of Strang’s children’s worlds, just to give you a taste. The other side are mad Kind Strang, with his sceptre which eats souls, with his children Thorn (a Vampire), Katastropha (a Dragon), and Ash, who got disinherited, but is the only one ‘sane’ here.

This is an interesting and engrossing book, and quite an easy read (it’s language and topic wise aimed at older adolescents, too). It’s an escapist fantasy-cum-real, with much more bite than Somtow's The Fallen Country, which took a similar approach but didn’t push it as far.
The EWG model is never specified, but is just used as a plot device (no problem with that, it’s not a physics textbook), and is used in a rather entertaining fashion. If you want parallel universes and an exploration of the paradoxes that come with them, in-depth, then you want to look at Gerrold’s ‘Man who folded Himself’.
Overall a great book, recommended regardless of your age. Worth having for the cover, the poetry, and the entertaining story.

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Title: Riverrun
Series: Riverrun
Series Number: 1
Author: S P Somtow
Author: Somtow Sucharitul
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Avon Books
Publication Date: September 1991
Review Date: 12 June 2006
ISBN: 038075925X
Price: £4.99
Format: Paperback
Topic: Fantasy
Topic: Horror
Topic: Vampires


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