infinity plus - sf, fantasy and horror non-fiction: reviews, interviews and features
infinity plus home pagefictionnon-fictionother stuffa to z

River of Gods

by Ian McDonald

(Simon & Schuster, 485 pages, uncorrected book proof reviewed; available as hardback priced £17.99, and as trade paperback priced £12.99, published 7 June 2004. Mass market paperback, Pocket Books, £7.99, 583 pages, 4 April 2005.)

Review by John D Owen

After the success of his African-based "Chaga" cover scanstories (Chaga, 1996, and Kirinya, 1998, plus the novelette Tendeleo's Story, 2002), Ian McDonald switches continents for his latest work, River of Gods, which is set in an India one hundred years on from its independence from British rule. It is an India quite different from now, but recognisable as a future projection of current trends in both Indian and world development. Being Ian McDonald, of course, the story is much more than a mere extrapolation of trends for a near-future plotline: McDonald weaves his usual magic with characters and events, both surprising and delighting the reader with his craft and his guile.

India in 2047 is a divided nation, with individual states continually on the verge of war with each other, with water as the prime source of contention. Inside this tinderbox, McDonald places a large cast of characters, a diverse collection of movers and shakers, shadows and investigators, changers and the changed. At first, the connections between the different storylines are unclear, but as the novel progresses, they slowly begin to weave together into a coherent tapestry, until by the end, they all contribute their own distinctive pattern to a glorious whole.

As readers have come to expect from McDonald, the storyline works so well because he creates such excellent characters, sharply delineated one from the other, each an individual that we can understand and empathise with (even a vicious gangster). By hopping from one character to another in the early chapters, McDonald both introduces the people of his story, and sketches in the society which they inhabit. Then he hits the accelerator, the storyline goes into top gear, and events send his characters into each others' orbits. Underlying the whole story is the presence of rapidly developing artificial intelligences, hunted to extinction by Krishna cops, but central to a number of key elements of the future India.

McDonald captures the turmoil and tumult of India in a time of great change, taking current trends (India's progress in software and scientific research) and building on those, while also carrying forward the great disparity between rich and poor, the caste systems and the religious prejudices. For McDonald's purposes, India makes for a great melting pot of ideas, attitudes and aspirations. There is a delicious irony in the way he uses his storyline to advance the thrust for self-determination that is so characteristic of the Indian people, through his characters, the country, the companies and even for the AIs. And that factor is at the root of the story, how self-determination is achieved or stifled, leading upwards to greater things, or downwards to destruction. McDonald being the master technician he is, you can never quite tell which way any particular character will go, until the author is good and ready to reveal the next twist in the plot, the next surprising turn in an elaborate story. As ever, Ian McDonald serves up a thoroughly engrossing read combined with some thought-provoking settings.

Elsewhere in infinity plus:

Let us know what you think of infinity plus - e-mail us at:

support this site - buy books through these links:
A+ Books: an insider's view of sf, fantasy and horror (US) | Internet Bookshop (UK)