Fiction Reviews

What The River Knows

(2023) by Isabel Ibanez, Hodderscape, £14.99, trdpbk, ii + 405pp, ISBN 978-1-399-72218-6


Inez Olivera is an unusual young woman from Argentina in the 1880’s who travels to Egypt alone to discover the truth about her parents’ mysterious deaths. Egyptophiles, archaeologists and hunters for magical treasures, her mother and father were often absent from Inez’s home on expeditions, and have now vanished completely somewhere in the Egyptian desert.

Hoping for answers from her uncle – another archaeologist – Inez eventually convinces him to keep her around and take her on his latest journey down the Nile rather than just send her home. This is no sentimental decision, for Inez proves uncannily able to detect the signatures of magical artefacts, a skill essential when seeking the tomb of Cleopatra!

Along with all of this, Inez has to contend with her uncle’s assistant and cashiered former British soldier Whitford ‘Whit’ Hayes, who is a character right out of the Michael Douglas / Romancing The Stone playbook and a man who knows his way round North Africa, a pistol and a whisky flask in equal measure.

However disreputable his manner and infuriating his behaviour (or, alternatively, no matter stubborn her outlook and how fixed her need to find out what happened to her parents at all costs) fate throws them together and a mutual attraction develops between Inez and Whit. The book alternates between giving them opportunities to connect and new ways to distrust and dislike each other, while they travel with the expedition in search of treasure.

As a young adult novel, What The River Knows splits the difference between good old-fashioned adventure and romance, with a dash of fantasy on the side. This sort of story has of course been done before, especially in this setting. But Inez’s position as an outsider, neither Egyptian nor British, gives it a freshness it wouldn’t otherwise have. It also allows Ibanez to put some trenchant criticisms of the British occupation in the mouths of Inez, Whit and others.

The fantastic elements of the novel – largely confined to ancient items retaining magical powers in an age of science – elevate it beyond the run of the mill of historical fiction. It is skilful work too to introduce magic to a modern setting without fundamentally changing the nature of that fictional universe: hats off.

There’s a lot on paper to like in What The River Knows: the set-up, the world building, the mysteries at the novel’s centre. Ibanez writes well and makes Inez an easy character to identify with without blinding the reader to her flaws, which are generally those of youth. The novel’s nineteenth century Egypt is also vivid and well-researched.

However, these virtues did not wholly translate into practice for me as a reader. I did not find the Inez-Whit romance entirely convincing, and I found myself wishing for a little more from the book then it gave me. That said, it’s great that 'young adult' stories this well done and rich in background can be published (a sequel is planned) and it will no doubt find its audience.

Tim Atkinson


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