Serena’s Review: “Like a River Glorious”

18054071Book: “Like a River Glorious” by Rae Carson

Publishing Info: Greenwillow, September 2016

Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!

Book Description: After a harrowing journey across the country, Leah Westfall and her friends have finally arrived in California and are ready to make their fortunes in the Gold Rush. Lee has a special advantage over the other new arrivals in California—she has the ability to sense gold, a secret known only by her handsome best friend Jefferson and her murdering uncle Hiram.

Lee and her friends have the chance to be the most prosperous settlers in California, but Hiram hasn’t given up trying to control Lee and her power. Sabotage and kidnapping are the least of what he’ll do to make sure Lee is his own. His mine is the deepest and darkest in the territory, and there Lee learns the full extent of her magical gift, the worst of her uncle, and the true strength of her friendships. To save everyone, she vows to destroy her uncle and the empire he is building—even at the cost of her own freedom.

Previously reviewed: “Walk on Earth a Stranger”

Review: As I said in my review of the first book in this series, “Walk on Earth a Stranger” was pretty much what you’d get if you turned the old Oregon Trail game into a full length novel. Add in a small dash of fantasy with Lee’s gold sense, a few more references to the prejudices and wrongs of the time, and there ya go! As a travelogue, I very much enjoyed the story. But in the end, they arrived at California. Without the travel/Oregon Trail part of the story, would this series continue to hold up. And the answer is…kind of?

Lee and her friends have finally arrived in California, found a claim spot ripe with gold, relying on Lee’s gold sense, and begun to set up their own little town. But when a string of misfortune’s start befalling the growing township and its residents, Lee’s the only one to suspect the truth: her uncle Hiram is back after her and these little “accidents” are his way of warning her. Determined to set things straight once and for all, Lee and Jefferson set out to confront her uncle and gain Lee’s freedom. But it all goes wrong, and Lee is about to find out just how awful her uncle truly is.

So I have very mixed feelings on this book. But I’ll start with the things that I know I enjoyed. I still very much liked the mixture of a historical setting and Lee’s magical abilities. If nothing else, the author makes you feel like you’re in this time period. There are no missteps, and I always felt fully immersed in this world. The challenges of living during this period are clear: weather, nature, sickness/injury, they must overcome it all and the day to day life is so distinct and well-described that I never questioned the authenticity of this world. The real skill was then in merging Lee’s magical abilities into this world without disturbing the balance of realism. Her gold sense played a background role in the first book, serving primarily as a motivation for the villain and coming into play here and there when needed. Here, even with Lee’s growing understanding of her own powers, her gold sense still remains mostly in the background. It is the crux of the conflict, but it isn’t really used much beyond that, besides in the final conflict. This balance allowed the historical elements and characters themselves to serve instead as the main point of interest for the book.

I also still enjoyed Lee as a character.  Here, she is forced to confront the role that she plays in the way that history is unfolding. Yes, she is sympathetic and “ahead of her time” for a character living in this period of history, but she is not excused from responsibility. She’s still claimed land that belonged to others and through her and the others mining for gold, irrecoverably changed the very landscape upon which they’re living. I liked that she wasn’t let off the hook for these actions and, while she recognizes the harm, she doesn’t have, or is given, any quick and easy solutions. What’s more, she doesn’t always come to these conclusions on her own, but must be informed of her own ignorance and remaining prejudices by those around her.

However, Lee wasn’t given much to do in this book, frankly. In the last, we saw how she contributed to the wagon train which she was a part of. She took action on her own and used her own skills, not just her gold sense, to solve problems. Given the nature of this story, Lee is sidelined for much of this book. It is up to others to plan and plot, and while she’s not strictly speaking a damsel in distress, she’s probably only one step away. And, because the story is told from her point of view, the reader is left with a lot of inaction and waiting, just as Lee is herself.

And in that time, the book becomes very hard to read. As I said, the author doesn’t flinch away from portraying some very ugly realities for what this time period could be like for many people, especially at the hands of the worst of the white settlers (though, as I said, even the “best” are not let off the hook for their own compliance and ultimate self-interest). While I admire this dedication to revealing the ugliness that existed, it also began to be almost too much as the story progressed. Because of Lee’s own captivity, the reader also feels like a captive audience to pages and pages of depravity and various horrors.

It is this combination of reduced action for Lee herself and this laser focus on some very tough scenes that made the story lag quite a bit in the middle. “Lag” is even a strange word for it, since boredom was definitely not the emotion most sparked by the harsh images presented. But plot-wise, the story did feel adrift and wallowing. The action picked up again in the end, and I liked that even in the resolution, things do not end in any type of perfect, utopia-like fashion. This specific horror might have been ended, but the world that they all are living in is unchanged.

Again, this story also resolves in a way that leaves me questioning where the third book will go from here, similarly to the first. While I did struggle with this book a bit, I’m still curious to see where things will ultimately end up and I’m sure I’ll pick up the next one soon!

Rating 6: A reduced role for our heroine combined with some really tough scenes seemed to negatively affect the pacing of this book. But the historical aspects are still excellent.

Reader’s Advisory:

“Like a River Glorious” can be found on these Goodreads lists: “YA & Middle Grade California Gold Rush Fiction” and “YA Historical Fiction of 2016.”

Find “Like a River Glorious” at your library using WorldCat!

 

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