Title: The River of Souls
Author: Robert McCammon
Series: Matthew Corbett #5
Genre: Historical Mystery
Summary (from Goodreads)
The year is 1703. The place: the Carolina settlement of Charles Town. . Matthew Corbett, professional “problem solver,” has accepted a lucrative, if unusual, commission: escorting a beautiful woman to a fancy dress ball.
What should be a pleasant assignment takes a darker turn when Matthew becomes involved in a murder investigation. A sixteen-year-old girl has been stabbed to death on the grounds of a local plantation. The suspected killer is a slave who has escaped, with two family members, into the dubious protection of a nearby swamp. Troubled by certain discrepancies and determined to see some sort of justice done, Matthew joins the hunt for the runaway slaves. He embarks on a treacherous journey up the Solstice River, also known as the River of Souls. He discovers that something born of the swamp has joined the hunt… and is stalking the hunters with more than murder in mind.
What follows is a shattering ordeal encompassing snakes, alligators, exiled savages, mythical beasts, and ordinary human treachery. The journey up the River of Souls will test the limits of Matthew’s endurance, and lead him through a nightmarish passage to a confrontation with his past, and a moment that will alter his life forever.
Okay, so I should probably start this review by saying I haven’t read a single book in the Matthew Corbett series before this one. Not that I think it matters particularly – the story in this case was pretty much standalone, and I often pick up series half way through without too much issue – but for the sake of full disclosure, I am jumping in halfway through an established series here.
So, good stuff first:
I liked the setting, the idea of travelling up the river and facing all the various foes it presented was a good one. There was a nice blend of ‘mystical’ with the feeling ‘this could all be explained if only the characters weren’t superstitious’ – the historical setting juxtaposed nicely with a modern world-view brought by the reader, but at the same time, McCammon was able to make you think just for a moment ‘maybe there is something supernatural about all this.’
So the atmosphere works as well. It’s nicely creepy at times, with some good points of tension, and McCammon doesn’t shy away from putting his protagonist into dire situations – including having him shot by Indians and having to pull the arrow out of his own body to use it to cut himself free from a trap.
The characters were fairly well rounded, and probably would have been more so in Matthew’s case if I’d read the previous instalments. There were plenty of hints about past relationships, cases and events that suggested a depth of development.
Now for the not so good.
The pacing was all wrong, for starters. We knew who the killer was before they’d even left for their journey upriver, which took a lot of the suspense right out of it. It took a really long time to get into the story, then after it finished there was an extended memory loss sequence that was just stupid.
I honestly thought the story had finished and it was going to be one of those books with adverts for other stories and a chapter or two of the next book in the back. But no, it was the story carrying on.
And the memory loss thing was so contrived. It was like the writer thought ‘how am I going to set up the conflict for the next book? I know, I’ll have my character abducted by the enemy!’ then realising that their character had come so far in their development that there was no way that could feasibly happen. So BAM memory loss.
It really annoyed me, because there had been some good story telling ideas, but the whole final act was just lazy. And ridiculous. I’m not a doctor, but I don’t think that scale of memory loss happens from being whacked on the head with an oar. Some confusion, and maybe a few days of forgetfulness, but not remembering who you are enough to be convinced you are another person?? And why did no one in town care that someone was trying to persuade him he was her dead husband? Did no one take him aside and ask him if he was under duress?
There wasn’t enough good about the central chase up the river (a lot of that was rushed over as well) to allow for the extreme suspension of disbelief the ending warranted. Which means what could have been a light, entertaining read just turned into something a bit stupid in the end.