Review: A River Enchanted by Rebecca Ross

Jack Tamerlaine hasn’t stepped foot on Cadence in ten long years, content to study music at the mainland university. But when young girls start disappearing from the isle, Jack is summoned home to help find them. Enchantments run deep on Cadence: gossip is carried by the wind, plaid shawls can be as strong as armor, and the smallest cut of a knife can instill fathomless fear. The capricious spirits that rule the isle by fire, water, earth, and wind find mirth in the lives of the humans who call the land home. Adaira, heiress of the east and Jack’s childhood enemy, knows the spirits only answer to a bard’s music, and she hopes Jack can draw them forth by song, enticing them to return the missing girls.

As Jack and Adaira reluctantly work together, they find they make better allies than rivals as their partnership turns into something more. But with each passing song, it becomes apparent the trouble with the spirits is far more sinister than they first expected, and an older, darker secret about Cadence lurks beneath the surface, threatening to undo them all.

Publication details: 3 February 2022, by Harper Voyager. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 3/5

Review

A River Enchanted had some elements I really liked, and some that didn’t work for me at all, leaving me distinctly whelmed.

Firstly, I’m not sure the comp titles are the right ones, personally. This book lacks the romantic passion of a Sarah J. Maas book (and I say that as someone who aggressively DNF’d her books), and it’s much more whimsical and soft than either Uprooted or the The Witch’s Heart. I’d suggest it’s much closer to something like an adult version of the Folk of the Air series by Holly Black, though that’s not a perfect comparison either.

On the positive side, the setting is excellent, and Ross writes really nicely. Her prose is relatively straightforward but there’s a really strong sense of place, inspired by Scotland, with plenty of quaint cottages and a wild, rugged coastline. I also really liked the spirit-based magic system and the way that enchanted songs, clothing and weapons were incorporated into the storyline; magic, in Cadence, has a very clear price that must be weighed up. Some of the most compelling scenes involve Jack making choices about using his bardic talents to control the spirits, even as it begins to physically weaken him.

Additionally, the mystery of the missing children is well done. Some elements are rather predictable, but Ross slowly unravels the true extent of Jack and Adaira’s (the laird’s daughter) complicated family histories throughout the novel, and there is one twist I didn’t see coming that changes the whole dynamic in terms of the characters’ relationships. I’m on the fence about whether I’ll read the sequel, but the ending of this book does set up some rather interesting possibilities for what choices Jack and Adaira might make next in light of their newfound knowledge.

Where this book really fell down for me, however, is the key relationships and the pacing. Somehow, A River Enchanted managed to be both too short and too long. The first chapter tells us that Jack has a complicated relationship with the island of Cadence and with his mother, having been away at university on the mainland for ten years until he is summoned back. Within a chapter or two more, he’s already reconciled his feelings about all of these issues… and we still have 400 pages to go. Similarly, this book has been pitched as an ‘enemies to lovers romance’, but… it’s not that. Based on how their relationship is laid out in the book, Jack and Adaira used to lightly tease each other as kids before being separated for ten years; any bickering now they have reunited could be described as friendly banter at best, which very quickly gives way to romance.

There is another romance between the older adults, Sidra (the local healer) and Torin (the chief warrior of the East), but it’s all very one-note. Sidra is the dutiful mother and healer, and Torin is a stock-standard emotionally stunted hero, and while they make efforts to overcome these tropes during the book, it wasn’t very compelling to me. The most interesting element that has the potential to change their relationship (a particular secret Sidra is hiding) isn’t even brought into play in the first half of this duology.

All of this combined means we spend most of the book rehashing the same few scenes over and over, and drawing out other elements of the story unnecessarily. A River Enchanted is a story that ultimately could have been told in about 300-350 pages without losing a thing. It is Ross’ adult debut after several YA novels, so I’m hoping she felt the need to overcompensate a little on length and will find a more natural balance in later works.

There’s plenty to like here, and those who like vibes over plot may well find some of the book’s weaknesses to be strengths instead. Unfortunately this one just didn’t quite live up to my hopes.

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