I picked this one up under the mistaken impression that it was written for an adult audience. For YA, it’s certainly not bad, and it’s a quick and easy read, but not what I’d hoped for.
The Bird of the River is a simple fantasy tale about a teenage girl, Eliss, who loses her mother and gains a job on a riverboat. As the boat travels up the river, Eliss deals with her unhappy mixed-race little brother, a young nobleman on a secret quest, and a mystery surrounding attacks by monster pirates. There’s little magic, so the fantasy label comes mostly from the world Baker has created: different from the norm in the warm climate and a few imaginative elements, but for the most part a typical fantasy world, complete with elf-like people, an assassins’ guild and bad economics. How can you write the phrase "a town of goldsmiths" without realizing the problem with that? Really, a town in the middle of nowhere with one inn but a whole bunch of jewelers?
The plot is quite simple as well, although entertaining enough. Rather than being divided into chapters, it has regular line breaks throughout, such that it's easy to stop and start wherever you want. For YA, the characterization is pretty decent. Cliché fantasy elements abound: for instance, Eliss discovers her extraordinary natural skill (as a lookout) and that she’s beautiful but didn’t know it. Part of me likes that her skill is something atypical for a fantasy novel and prosaic--instead of being or quickly becoming an awesome swordfighter or mage or whatever, she's super-skilled at some unsung, everyday task. But then, being a good ship's lookout seems like it would depend far more on experience than innate talent--and is it really realistic that among experienced sailors, one lookout would be that much better than another anyway?
But there are some complexities as well, such as one character's struggle to break away from his upbringing. It is nice that the book focuses on working-class people and deals with classism and racism. But it still feels quite young: YA for the most part, although in some ways it’s less mature than typical YA; the romance, for instance, is middle-grade, with no acknowledgement that Eliss and her love interest might want any sort of physical relationship (even so much as kissing).
At any rate, I don’t regret reading this book, and it does have some chuckle-worthy moments as well as some worthwhile deeper ones, but overall it was too young and simple for my tastes. I would recommend it to younger readers, or to adults who like YA, but not to a general adult audience.