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Review: The Riverman by Aaron Starmer

The Riverman (The Riverman Trilogy, Volume 1)
By Aaron Starmer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

ISBN: 9780374363093
Grades 6-9
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Interestingness is underrated (it also barely feels like a real word, but let’s not let that get in the way here). Sometimes, in an effort to put forth beautiful writing, authors forget that they’re (let’s be honest) completely boring the reader. With a darkly compelling mix of intriguing characters and a brain-twisting mystery held together with some mighty skilled writing, The Riverman is the most interesting book I’ve read thus far in 2014. I’d be surprised if anything knocks it off the throne. While it’s more YA than just about anything I’ve reviewed, it’s the sort of book I feel compelled to spread the word about. It’s fair to say my mind was blown.

Is Fiona Loomis telling the truth? Or is she making it all up? When Fiona asks Alistair Cleary to write her biography it seems like an odd request. But things get more bizarre when she begins to tell Alistair about Aquavania, a place she is able to visit where anything is possible. It stirs a distant memory in Alistair – has he been there too? But there’s something urgent going on – kids that disappear in Aquavania are turning up missing in the real world too. The Riverman is to blame, and Fiona might be next. Or at least that’s what she’s saying. Again: Is Fiona Loomis telling the truth?

Written in a first-person journal style over the course of a few fall weeks in 1989, the reader is inside 12-year-old Alistair’s head as he tries to make sense of it all. The perspective switches to Fiona occasionally as she recounts her experiences in Aquavania to Alistair. Things really get interesting when the two narratives overlap, and we see early parts of the book, parts already relayed by Alistair, from Fiona’s perspective.

Back to interesting. It’s like Mr. Starmer wrote this manuscript and then relentlessly hammered on the backspace key until only the most compelling elements remained.  It makes scores of books seem ponderous by comparison. The plot moves along nicely, but there’s excellent writing as well. Emotions and relationships feel honest. Characters are memorable. The setting is well-delineated. The creation of mood is off the charts.

There’s nothing feel-good about this story. But it’s ultimately about missing children, so how could it be? Alistair suspects something tragic in Fiona’s home life is compelling her to seek him out, and his mind goes to some dark places.

For many, their opinion of The Riverman will be decided by the ending. Readers will get to the end, which answers some questions but also leaves some open, and decide if it was worth it or not. If you’re looking for everything to get wrapped up in a bow, you’re barking up the wrong tree. This is a story that leaves the reader to suss some things out – which is a strength in my book. I’ve never been a re-reader, but after the last page I immediately went back and had to re-read the last section – with rewarding results. Knowing in advance that this is the first book in a planned trilogy will help those who aren’t much for ambiguity.

As much as I’d like to claim this book for middle grade, that feels like a stretch. I’m no expert on teen books, but The Riverman seems to fall more in Printz territory than Newbery. And I do think it will it will be discussed – if for no other reason than everyone will want to talk to someone else about it. It’s that kind of book.

It’s intense. It’s mysterious. It’s just plain interesting – from start to finish. Readers may find themselves unable to put this book down.

Digital review copy from NetGalley

Also reviewed by A Fuse #8 Production, Sharpread.

Read an interview with Riverman author Aaron Starmer at Watch. Connect. Read.

Read Educating Alice’s post about ambiguous endings, including The Riverman

Read an excerpt from The Riverman

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. Well put, sir! The ending is key for me, in that I really LIKE the ambiguity. I think you can interpret whether or not the world is real or not from that ending. Sort of makes me sad to hear there will be sequels since, as the sequels to The Giver did, they’ll decide on the reality of the worlds for you.

    Glad to hear you also thought it was YA. We had a big debate over here and finally cataloged it as YA but I have had a couple YA librarians say it read young for them. Damned if you do damned if you don’t. It’s the most Middle Schoolish book I’ve ever read. And one of the best.