A middle school boy must decide whether a mysterious girl is at risk of being murdered by a shadowy, fantastical figure known as The Riverman, or whether she is losing her mind in author Aaron Starmer's new novel.
"The Riverman" is the first installment in a planned trilogy by the New Jersey writer. Marketed as a book for middle school readers, "The Riverman" contains mature themes and occasional crude sexual innuendos uttered by the boy characters. I would recommend it for mature middle school students on up to adults.
Starmer quickly creates an eerie atmosphere in the opening of the novel as the main character, Alistair, states that every town — including his own — has a lost child.
When he was three years old, Alistair saw the trapped, submerged body of an older boy who had been swept away and drowned in a swollen river.
"His eyes were open, looking up at me," Alistair recalls. "One of his arms stuck out from the muck. As the current moved, it guided his hand back and forth, back and forth. It was like he was waving at me. It almost seemed as though he was happy to see me."
A mere toddler at the time, Alistair is unable to communicate with adults about his gruesome discovery.
The theme of lost children is temporarily abandoned in the book when a mysterious girl from his neighborhood named Fiona attempts to enlist Alistair in writing her biography.
Fiona claims she is able to visit an alternate world named Aquavania, where her wishes become reality. The descriptions of Aquavania make it seem like a dream — although a dream Fiona can control.
"There were glorious birds with neon wings and corkscrew beaks. There were waterfalls as tall as skyscrapers and enormous swimming holes full of singing sea lions and ringed with flowers that smelled like bacon and pie, which were Fiona's favorite smells," Starmer writes.
But all is not well in Aquavania. Fiona tells Alistair children are disappearing from the alternate world — tracked down and killed by The Riverman. They also vanish from their hometowns around the real world without a trace.
As his attraction for Fiona grows, Alistair wonders if she will become the next lost child from his town. But he is unable to believe her fantastic tales of Aquavania. Alistair begins to suspect her odd uncle, who is staying with Fiona's family, may be abducting and killing children.
Hidden in Fiona's backyard, he sees Fiona's uncle going through the motions of smothering Fiona's grandmother, who is confined to a wheelchair and cannot see the actions being carried out behind her back.
Predictably for a series aimed at kids, Alistair has a violent confrontation with the evil figure at the end of "The Riverman," but in true Harry Potter style, cannot finish him off. Many loose ends remain for the second and third books in the trilogy.
But "The Riverman" succeeds in creating memorable characters and raising relevant issues without preaching. Is one boy, for example, playing violent video games so often that death in the real world seems like a game?
Younger readers will identify with the engrossing worlds created in the book, worlds similar to the ones they create in their imaginations and with iPad apps. Adults will have flashbacks to their own school days as the characters navigate middle school in the late 1980s and send messages to each other via casettes played on tape recorders.
As an added bonus, the book's cover is illustrated by Russian-born artist Yelena Brysenkova, whose muted, moody palette and signature style are perfect for this unique and mysterious book.