River of Gods – Ian McDonald

About the Book

As Mother India approaches her centenary, nine people are going about their business—a gangster, a cop, his wife, a politician, a stand-up comic, a set designer, a journalist, a scientist, and a dropout. And so is Aj—the waif, the mind reader, the prophet—when she one day finds a man who wants to stay hidden.

In the next few weeks, they will all be swept together to decide the fate of the nation.

River of Gods teems with the life of a country choked with peoples and cultures—one and a half billion people, twelve semi-independent nations, nine million gods. Ian McDonald has written the great Indian novel of the new millennium, in which a war is fought, a love betrayed, a message from a different world decoded, as the great river Ganges flows on

I’m obsessed with other cultures. That’s the entire reason I picked up this book. I was wandering through the bookstore and I saw a science fiction book based in India and I couldn’t pass over it. I couldn’t pretend I didn’t see it, so I had to read it and devour it.

I realize a lot of people have heard of Ian McDonald from some of his other books but I never had. I’ve never read the man before and that may or may not be a good thing when I think about how to properly formulate this review. I have no idea what his style is like outside the scope of River of Gods or if I should be harping on him for certain stylistic faux pas that may have carried over from other novels. Regardless, here my review is in all its glory.

River of Gods is a complex, multi-threaded tale taking place in the near future in India. The India of the future has been split into somewhat warring states. There is a water shortage as the monsoon hasn’t come in three years, a rigid caste system, political and economic strife that tears cities apart at the seams and much more. While the rich get richer and designer babies are common among the elite, society functions off of a gross gender imbalance where men outnumber women by 2/3rds. It’s world complex, foreign and unique world.

McDonald’s writing at times reminded me of a mixture of K.J. Parker’s dry, cynical humor and a dash of Peter F. Hamilton with the science fiction aspects, though he always manages to keep his own unique voice throughout. He is incredibly descriptive, almost shockingly so. He seemed to purposefully take a “no holds barred” stance with many of his scenes. He equally describes the good, bad and ugly sides of his world in shocking detail. This seems to help the reader understand how the situations he is writing about is multi faceted and how culture and tradition can play a part in events, as well as individual motivations.

River of Gods is full of everything. There is plenty of sex and language, some violence and much more.  McDonald, thankfully, calls upon many aspects of Indian culture, like the Ganges River (ie: the river of gods) which is steeped in Hindu tradition, as well as India’s well known caste system, arranged marriages and even creates a third gender, nutes, out of India’s well known and numerous castrated men. Furthermore, if that isn’t enough, a layer of mystery is added to the whole thing by a discovered asteroid which is older than the solar system and a mysterious extra terrestrial message. Because of his balance of cultural aspects we all know about, mixed with new and unique science fiction type additions, this book was easy for me to understand and keep pace with. 

It’s kind of incredible, when put in that context, how McDonald seems to manage to keep everything completely focused and the plot moving along smoothly without any rambling side stories that seem to go nowhere or dialogue that has no purpose. There is a lot going on in this book, which is slightly under 600 pages. Each chapter is focused on between one to three individual characters. By the time I finished it, I had a hard time deciding which part of the book kept me the most interested, the characters, or the plot.

It is impossible not to be interested in the characters, despite the fact that some are absolutely despicable, even then they are compelling; each with their own unique voice, motivations and desires. They each manage to keep the reader engaged in their own dramas so completely that it isn’t until the book is almost over that I realized how each of them seemed to fit into the plot as a whole. Each character has their own lifespan in the story, some ending tragically (some conclusions did seem a bit rushed), but all seeming to come to a gradual close and resolution in their own time. There were a few characters I wouldn’t mind McDonald dedicating entire novels to.

This book is profound. McDonald targets many aspects of life and subtly poses questions as he does it. River of Gods seems to toy with many ideas of holiness and divinity from numerous perspectives. Whether it is from the perspective of the Krishna Cop’s “god gun” or from the aeai’s who have seemed to overtaken the entertainment industry to the point where no one seems to notice they are virtual constructs rather than real people, the question of “who creates the creator” seems to be subtly asked throughout the book. Whether or not you agree with this sentiment or if you get something else out of this book is up to you, as the reader. River of Gods seems to be a good example of an author who is willing to throw a great story out there, and let the reader get from it what they will.

India is a good place for a story like this to take place. The country itself is steeped in ancient traditions dating back thousands of years. The Hindu religion is an integral part of Indian culture and McDonald does a good job at portraying this. Everything seems to circle around the Ganges River in this book, whether directly (as in the opening scene where McDonald paints an incredible picture of the world he has created along the banks of this river) or indirectly, or even subtly. The novel itself seems to be a perfect circle in many respects and McDonald has done a great job at expounding on aspects of culture, religion, world view, politics, sexuality and violence in a foreign enough way to keep us interested, yet relatable enough to strike home on an intellectual level.

This was a fantastic read which left me pondering deep thoughts and wondering when I can read this book again to glean more information from its pages. I had a very hard time writing this review because I felt like I didn’t even skim the books surface. I also feel like this is a book which could mean something very different to everyone who reads it, which makes me hesitant to state my own perspectives.

Potential readers should be warned that River of Gods is graphic and there is language to be aware of in it. Some sexuality is explored which could make some people uncomfortable. Those who do decide to give this book a try should become familiar with the glossary of terms at the back of the book. It will considerably help you understand the culture and much of what is going on. 

4/5 stars

3 Responses

  • Mieneke

    Awesome review! I know you weren't sure about how to write it, but I think it's great. And now I have another book to add to my wishlist lol by now I need to win the lottery to get everything on there!!

  • Sarah

    Thanks 🙂

    I know what you mean. My list of books keeps expanding and expanding…. I'm glad my local library is amazing or I'd be in the poor house for sure.

  • Jamie Gibbs

    I'm a big fan of other cultures in fiction too, and mixing a well known culture with elements of scifi sounds pretty awesome. I'll keep an eye out for this book, I'd like to look at how the spiritual traditions and the scifi elements interact with eachother. Thanks 😀

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.