Well, I finished it on the 5th, much faster than I expected to. This probably has something to do going away a couple of weekends back and having more opportunity than usual to sit around and do very little other than read, and something to do with the indisputable fact that this book rocks. Here’s a few impressions, hopefully spoiler-free, of Ian McDonald‘s River of Gods.
The story features a huge cast of characters from India and beyond whose destinies converge in Varanasi, a holy city on the river Ganges, as the monsoon rains come for the first time in years. The central plot features some time-honoured SF tropes (the emergence of strong AI and many-worlds theory to name but two) but gives them an original treatment in a vividly realistic setting: McDonald’s India feels so authentic you can smell the smoke from the burning ghats rising form the pages… I once spent a couple of weeks staying in the old city in Varanasi, and this took me right back there.
Although it’s been remarked elsewhere that the book can be difficult to follow I didn’t find it so, but then I’m a seasoned SF reader so perhaps I’ve got the cultural capital required to keep up. This is perhaps just as well, as the pace steadily increases as the novel nears its conculsion and all the characters and their intrigues meet on the chaotic, rain-sodden streets of a city in the midst of a political crisis.
It’s the characters which really make the book. Although there are recognisable types here – the politician with a secret, the naïve young journalist searching for a scoop, the reluctant heir, the neglected wife – all are given such life by the author that they transcend any potential cliché. The minutae of their lives provide the background details that help with suspension of disbelief and the human interest required to keep you involved in a novel as crammed with ideas and action as this one.
Token gripe: use of the pronoun “yt” for members of the neuter gender, which I was still stumbling over by the end of the book. I can see the need for this, but I think I prefer Greg Egan‘s “ve/ver/vis”.
To summarise: fantastic, and a warning to those like myself who might underestimate the sophistication of the soap opera. Get reading.