River Secrets is the third of Shannon Hale’s “Books of Bayern”, a series linked more by world and characters than events. The viewpoint character is different in each book.
After the war that took place in the second book, diplomacy is the order of the day. Razo, a self-consciously scrawny Bayern scout, is chosen as part of the ambassador’s entourage and so travels to Tira. Before they even arrive, he discovers signs that someone has been burning bodies, likely to sabotage the peace mission. Once in Tira, he immerses himself in the local culture, and even makes powerful friends, but continues to find burnt bodies. To make matters worse, the two most likely suspects are his old friend Enna and his new friend Dasha.
Mix in his own self esteem and views of his shortcomings, and we have a mildly interesting mystery settled inside what is essentially a coming of age story.
I found River Secrets to be a refreshing lift in tone from the second book, Enna Burning, which I had thought to be overly heavy and dramatic. Razo is a light-hearted character who uses humour to diffuse awkward situations, and with the war technically over, there is less reason for any characters to dwell gloomily on death and destruction. However, this book is just about as ham-fisted in its portrayal of war. Which I found odd, considering the Tirans’ purported cultural views on the concept.
Like the first two books in the series, this one has the theme of a youth who feels inadequate discovering an innate talent. However, Razo’s revelations that he has been Special All Along were paced well, and came about at appropriate times. They were rendered in a manner that was both realistic and satisfying. Nothing like the awkward way that other YA novels have of being somehow simultaneously anvilicious and offhanded.
I also thought Razo was a surprisingly realistic male protagonist, no mean feat for a writer like Shannon Hale, whose main characters tend to be girls of a certain age.
Unfortunately, Razo’s likeability was an occasional lifeline, keeping me from kicking the book across the room. I had never liked Enna–not in The Goose Girl, nor in her own book, Enna Burning. She just struck me as obnoxious in the first book, and then angsty in the second. She is at her worst in the third instalment. All of her emotions are turned up too high, and most of them are of the unappealing sort.
Still, this is an interesting read, and probably one of the better books in the series. Given that the next book, like the rest, has a protagonist shift, I doubt I’ll look for it. I have no interest whatsoever in Razo’s barely established little sister.