Sylvia Kelso

Jupiter Gardens Press

ISBN: 9780982763780

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

Source is the third in the Riverworld series, which began with Amberlight, and continued in Riversend. Although they are a series, each could be read alone. Of the three, Source would probably be the hardest for a reader to enjoy independently. It would be possible to follow the story, and there’s background given about the events of the earlier novels, but I suspect that much of the emotional impact would be lost and readers might struggle to feel involved with the characters.

In the first novels, a matriarchal society maintains power as a result of the fact that only women – and only some women at that – can cut and work the almost magical substance querrique. The city of Amberlight is destroyed by ambitious neighbouring countries, and it’s believed the querrique is lost forever. A small band of refugees, led by Tellurith, the former head of their house sets out for a vassal village far in the south. They intend to re-establish themselves as stone-cutters. Tellurith also takes advantage of this upheaval to introduce social changes, notably gender equity. (A proper summary of these two novels can be found at the beginning of Source.)

As Riversend closed, many in Iskarda, the village now home to Tellurith and her followers, share a dream of the River Source – the place the people of Amberlight came from. Source is the tale of the journey to find that place and perhaps recover the querrique.

Tellurith is accompanied upriver by her husbands, Alkhes and Sarth. All three are grieving the loss of their child. Sarth is struggling with a religious faith that’s been badly shaken. Alkhes, who gave up his life and success in another nation to follow Tellurith, is struggling to fully adapt to the new life he has chosen. These three must provide leadership for the small band of people who travel with them, as they face the hardships of the river and the challenges of the cities that lie along it, including hostile rulers.

Meanwhile, in Iskarda, a man named Tanekhet is trying to settle in. Disillusioned with his past life as unofficial ruler of Dhasdein, constantly enmeshed in politics and less than sterling behaviour, he sees in Tellurith’s dream a new world he wants to help form. But it’s not that easy, of course, and he faces daily challenges, personal and political, as he tries to assist his new nation.

Source is told entirely through letters written by Tellurith to Tanekhet, and Tanekhet to Tellurith, although most of the letters are not received by the other. This technique both worked for and against Kelso. She has an oblique style which I’ve enjoyed before, preferring not to spell everything out for the reader. And on the one hand, this works with these letters. When writing to someone whose intelligence you respect, you might indeed assume that they will interpret events the same way you did, or know the way your mind works, and be able to draw the same conclusions you did. However, sometimes it works against credibility – in a time of such upheaval, with Tellurith and Tanekhet not having known each other for all that long, I’m not really sure they would have been quite so confident of mutual understanding about critical issues. I suspect they might well have been inclined to spell some things out a little more.

In addition, the necessity to remind the reader that these are letters between the two of them sometimes forces Kelso into awkward moments. Tellurith, for example, bemoans the shortage of paper but still witters on with false starts and writing things like “I can’t send a letter saying this”. It doesn’t entirely fit with her personality, which suggests that she’d have thought carefully before committing words to paper in that situation. But Kelso needs to let us see some of her thought processes, so false starts and letters she can’t send it is.

Probably my main difficulty with the letters approach is that it made Tellerith and Tanekhet sound more similar to each other than they did in Riversend. In particular, some of Tanekhet’s uniqueness seemed to be blurred a little in this novel, and I struggled a little to continue seeing him as an individual.

There were some minor hiccups too, which may or may not have been due to the style of writing. For example, at times I got confused about the gender of characters. The names were unfamiliar and not always a clue; the strict gender roles of the earlier books have been upset; and sexual liaisons are no clue in this world. It actually didn’t matter very much to the story as the confusing occasions were always around minor characters; but it distracted me and pulled me out of the book.

Despite these issues, Source is an interesting novel and one likely to be enjoyed by those who’ve been following Kelso’s work. She has built a vivid and interesting world in these novels, and readers will enjoy discovering more about it, including its’ past, as Tellurith and her companions do. This is a thoughtful exploration of a people’s origins and beliefs which further develops characters who were already well formed in the earlier novels. I recommend Source, but readers not familiar with the earlier novels may do better to start with Amberlight.