The novel “Upriver, Downriver” by Aaron Ward was published for the first time in 2016.
In a secluded valley a community survives thanks off hunting, fishing and farming. The main threat to the inhabitants is a drought that has been ongoing for some years so everyone is hoping to have some rain at last. It’s one of the changes that occurred in a number of years following the birth of children with strange mutations.
The community’s inhabitants are strictly forbidden from goin gout of the boundaries defined generations before. When two distinct groups of foreigners arrive in the valley, the inhabitants’ reactions range from curiosity to suspicion. They bring advanced technology but some people are suspicious of the reasons behind their arrival.
“Upriver, Downriver” is set in a future quite far but the protagonists live in a relatively primitive community, where the most advanced technology is a system of mirrors used to illuminate a mountain’s shadowed side. It’s an isolated community that’s been living in that area for several generations in the hope of escaping the wars that ravaged the world.
This is not exactly a post-apocalyptic novel although there are references to the use of atomic bombs with high levels of destruction because civilization is not completely collapsed and there are still forms of advanced technology. Only fragments of that future history are revealed slowly, especially by the foreigners who tell them to the isolated community’s residents.
Initially, this might seem like a story inspired by Mark Twain were it not for the fact that the protagonists are teenagers with really unusual physical features, from extra eyes to extra arms, wings and more. These mutants’ birth is a mystery and on several occasions their presence brings out the darker sides of the other inhabitants of the community.
The first part of “Upriver, Downriver” is used by Aaron Ward to develop the various bases of the plot and the characters. The author does it also telling episodes of what for the protagonists is the normal life besides their encounter with the foreigners, which is an extraordinary event instead.
The result is that the first part of the novel has a quite slow pace and the plot is rather loose because it fragmented into various subplots. On the other hand, it allows the author to start developing the many characters very strongly and to outline the relationships among them and especially among the community’s inhabitants and the foreigners.
The pace starts accelerating when the story starts focusing on the consequences of the foreigners’ arrival. The boys and other inhabitants of the community are curious about them and give them at least the benefit of the doubt but others are much more wary and this also causes conflicts within the community.
The foreigners offer the locals help to overcome the drought but also advanced medical care. Some of the residents fear that behind those offered there might be some hidden agenda. In this situation, the boys are exposed to different viewpoints and lifestyles very different from those they have known. “Upriver, Downriver” is in many ways a coming-of-age novel given that the boys are the protagonists.
In the course of the novel, they the foreigners’ agendas emerge but their complex relationships with the locals also leads to the revelation of secrets within the community. Overall, I think that humanity’s negative sides prevail over their positive ones but that doesn’t mean that there are no hopes. Exposed to a lot of secrets and lies, for the boys it’s difficult to make their choices, also because the emotional factors are often very strong.
It’s a very humanistic science fiction in a very character-based story as gradually shows the various characters’ personalities but also their desires and motivations which may initially be hidden are outlined. A number of characters are faced with various ethical and moral dilemmas and these developments are in my opinion the novel’s strongest element so from this point of view it goes far beyond the typical young adult story.
“Upriver, Downriver” is a long and complex novel that requires some initial patience but I think in the end it keeps its promises. Due to its characteristics I recommend it especially to younger readers but I believe that it can be enjoyable for anyone interested in that kind of story.