Book Review: RIVER OF INK: GENESIS
By Helen Dennis
London: Hodder Children’s Books, 2016. $10.00
Some of the most interesting and innovative writers working today are writing for the young adult market. A market that once leaned towards wish-fulfillment stories and safe fantasy has transformed in recent years, and now addresses some of the cutting-edge social issues of the day in the context of compelling narratives. The mark of a good young adult novel is that it will tackle issues that the target audience will find relevant, but it will also engage the wider world of readers.
River Of Ink: Genesis by Helen Dennis touches almost all of these bases. It is the first book in a new series, and crosses the genres of thriller, fantasy, and mystery, engaging the reader with puzzles, danger, quests, and a real understanding of the history that is hidden in the world around us. Its London setting works well—there are few cities in the world that carry their pasts so richly and so casually.
At the start of the book, a boy almost drowns in the River Thames but escapes onto the banks and makes his way to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where his only answer to everyone’s questions is: “I don’t know.” River Boy, as the press dubs him, becomes a media sensation. He has lost his memory and yet, despite the fact that his picture and story have been shared in the national and international press, no one comes forward to claim him.
Eventually, Nat Farnell, a doctor charged with his care, suggests moving River Boy from the hospital and into a home environment. Nat plans to place the boy with the family of his own sister, Anna Devaux, in the hopes that Anna’s children might be able to help River Boy recover his memory. He also hopes this will relieve his niece Kassia from the obsessive attentions of her mother. Since the death of her husband, Anna Devaux has developed a mental illness, which manifests itself in obsessive-compulsive behaviour—compulsive organisation of her home and obsessive control of her children: Dante, who is deaf, and Kassia.
Kassia is home-schooled. Anna insists Kassia should take her GCSEs a year early and embark on her A Levels in order to become a doctor. Kassia’s life is tied to timetables, passed exam papers, and essay writing in a relentless work schedule that pays no attention to her needs for rest, relaxation, and fun. Kassia’s life is restricted to a closely-monitored world of academic study. She wants to return to school, but her mother won’t hear of it.
And yet, Anna is not a monster. She is a woman struggling with an unendurable loss, and trying, in her own way, to do her best for her children. When Nat presents her with River Boy as a lodger, she overcomes her initial objections and begins to care for him.
Kassia and River Boy become friends. Kassia is determined to help him find his identity, or failing that, develop an identity, starting with a name. River Boy opts for Jed. Jed, in turn, is determined to free Kassia from some of the restrictions that surround her.
Jed, Dante, and Kassia start to explore London, following the impulses that seem to control Jed. The river, the cathedral, and certain signs and shapes seem to draw him towards them, and sometimes reduce him to a state of helpless panic. While Jed was in hospital, he drew an apparently random set of images that Dante and Kassia piece together into an image of a snake or dragon eating its own tail. This sigil, an ouroboros, is an ancient symbol of infinity, eternal life, and the beginning and end of time.
Symbols and numbers obsess Jed. The mathematical relationships within the structures of ancient buildings such as St. Paul’s, the drawings and symbols contained there, the number six, a set of dates—all of these haunt Jed’s dreams but bring him no closer to knowing who he really is.
But Jed is carrying a secret that has strange and deadly implications which are far more important than even his origins and identity, and it is a secret that will draw others to him. Outside the safety of the Devaux family and the protection of Nat and Anna, a real danger lurks—one that may threaten them all.
Kassia has a choice. She can join Jed on his quest to find the secrets of his past, or she can stay in the safety of her home and routine. In the context of the book, it’s a bit of a no-brainer. Kassia, Dante, and Jed set out to find Jed’s secret, unaware at first of exactly how much danger they are in.
But when Jed’s secret is revealed, they realise the extent of what they are facing and that Jed in particular faces a danger that is worse than death. He has an impossible quest, and very little time in which to fulfill it.
River Of Ink addresses issues of family, identity, the responsibility that family and friends have for one another, and the dangers of what we believe we truly desire. The setting for much of the book is modern-day London, presented in both its current form and put into its historical perspective. Dennis delights in sending her characters to explore some of the more interesting and obscure locations in a city that is packed with them. The London of this book is a place of brooding secrets, and central to all of this is the ancient cathedral of St. Paul’s—endlessly destroyed and recreated—and the great river that holds its own secrets.
Dennis is careful to avoid the clichés of the genre. Kassia rebels against her mother’s obsessions, but she does it gently and with care. Anna struggles to make sense of her world by her manic insistence on order in every part of it, but her obsessions are rooted in her mind, not in malice.
There are some minor plot issues—could a family like the Devauxs really afford a flat in Fleet Street? There is no indication of where their money comes from. The ending of this first book stretches the reader’s credulity—but this may be addressed in the next book in the series.
River Of Ink: Genesis is a welcome addition to the field of young adult fantasy. This may be a crowded market, but there is always room for original and compelling writing. If Dennis can maintain this high standard in the next books in the series, these should become must-reads that will engage the widest possible audience. Not to be missed.