Some books you enjoy reading but forget about fairly soon after you turn the final page. Then there are those books that linger in your mind as if you’ve lived in the pages themselves; those books that are so full of everything you love to read that they sing to your very soul. Isabel Ibañez’s What The River Knows is that kind of book.
Set in the 1880’s, this immersive YA historical fantasy follows nineteen-year-old Bolivian-Argentinian Inez Olivera, a girl born into the glittering society of Buenos Aires, with all the wealth and luxuries that affords her. The only thing Inez doesn’t have is the company of her parents, who frequently leave her behind when they disappear on their adventures to Egypt. When she receives word of their tragic deaths, Inez inherits their vast fortune and an archaeologist guardian in the form of an uncle she hasn’t seen for ten years. Determined to find out what happened to her parents, Inez packs up her sketch pads and the ancient ring her father sent her for safekeeping before he died, stealing away from the safety of home and sailing alone to Cairo under the guise of being a widow. When she arrives, however, it’s not to the joyful family reunion she was expecting. Her immovable Uncle Ricardo is hellbent on sending her straight back to Argentina. Inez is hellbent on staying put. Cue the inevitable battle of wills.
It’s not just her uncle Inez has to contend with. When he realises just how determined his niece is, Ricardo places Inez under the protection of his infuriatingly handsome and capable assistant, Whitford Hayes, who keeps an annoyingly close eye on her. With all three of them searching for answers – some of which align and some of which they keep close to their chests – a tentative and uneasy alliance is formed. As the old world magic tethered to the ring pulls Inez down a path that suggests there was more to her parent’s disappearance than her uncle wants her to believe, her mission for the truth becomes increasingly dangerous. Inez risks becoming a pawn in a much larger game – that’s if she survives long enough to discover what the game really is.
If I left, I’d never understand what brought them here, year after year. To learn who they were so I wouldn’t forget about them. If I left, I’d never learn what happened to them. Curiosity burned a path straight to my heart, making it beat wildly. More than anything, I wanted to know what was worth their lives. If they thought of me at all. If they missed me.”
Filled with magic and wonder, What The River Knows has everything I adored about the 90’s historical adventure movie The Mummy, with the style and allure of Death on the Nile. It transports readers to another time and place entirely, to a world of exploration and opportunity, to a land of pharaohs and tombs, of great riches and even greater lootings. Like it’s action-packed cinematic predecessor, this story is at once a thrilling voyage into all things Egyptology and a sweeping rivals-to-lovers romance, whilst at the same time exploring the complicated bonds of family. It has everything you’d expect from a YA fantasy – compelling mystery, surprising twists, daring escapades and quippy dialogue. But it has a sophisticated edge that gives this book a more honed, grown-up feel than Ibañez’s previous YA offering, Together We Burn.
Everything about Ibañez’s writing grounds readers in nineteenth century Egypt – from the sights to the smells to the food to the wildlife. The country’s history and the damning legacy of British occupation is also woven into the story, giving it an essential sense of authenticity. The author’s fascination and love of the country is infused across the pages; envisaging every scene is so easy because the descriptions are so palpable. It also helps that Inez is so relatable, not to mention flawed. She’s a modern-day heroine trapped in an era that would have her sitting prim and pretty, sipping tea and eating cake. She’s not content to be still whilst the world moves around her. She wants to travel, explore and discover, like her parents did, and she’s driven by her love for them, even though she didn’t really know them as well as she thought she did. In that way, What The River Knows is a coming-of-age story as much as it is an adventure tale.
Inez spends much of the book escaping the clutches of various greed motivated men, but the only one who really has the true measure of her is Whit – our brawny, well-educated and quick-witted hero who hides his genuine decency behind well-rehearsed British charm and a flirty, indifferent attitude. His true feelings are a locked vault and though Inez suspects he’s a better man than he pretends to be, it’s only the brief sections of the story told from his POV that give a real sense of his inner turmoil. Keeping him a bit of an enigma is key to the story but it’s a shame that his perspective is so limited. He’s just as intriguing as Inez, more tortured too… though that’s likely to change after the devastating events of the final chapters.
The actual magic in this book is subtle, almost underplayed – there aren’t any swarms of scarabs or vengeful mummies chasing the characters (yet) – but that’s part of the reason why the story feels so real. And that goes for the romance too. Sparks fly the moment Inez and Whit meet, but Ibañez doesn’t rush their evolving relationship. The will-they-won’t-they romantic chemistry is more than enough to have readers rooting for them from the moment they cross paths, whilst at the same time ensuring we’re left craving more. Which leads me to that cliff-hanger – equal parts brilliant and cruel because it throws the story wide open, but the wait to find out how it’ll play out is going to be pure torture. It sets up one hell of a complicated tangle of allegiances and intentions for the sequel. But if it’s as good as this book, it’ll be something worth waiting for.
What The River Knows is published by Hodderscale on 14 November 2023