When Eva’s husband is arrested for the murder of a friend, she must confront her murky past and embrace her magick to find out what really happened that night on the river.
Eva Santos Moon is a burgeoning Chicana artist who practices the ancient, spiritual ways of brujería and curanderisma, but she’s at one of her lowest points–suffering from disorienting blackouts, creative stagnation, and a feeling of disconnect from her magickal roots. When her husband, a beloved university professor and the glue that holds their family together, is taken into custody for the shocking murder of their friend, Eva doesn’t know whom to trust–least of all, herself. She soon falls under suspicion as a potential suspect, and her past rises to the surface, dredging up the truth about an eerily similar death from her childhood.
Struggling with fragmented memories and self-doubt, an increasingly terrified Eva fears that she might have been involved in both murders. But why doesn’t she remember? Only the dead women know for sure, and they’re coming for her with a haunting vengeance. As she fights to keep her family out of danger, Eva realizes she must use her magick as a bruja to protect herself and her loved ones, while confronting her own dark history.
River woman, River Demon manages one of the most difficult and effective moves a novel (especially a horror thriller) can accomplish: it creates a self-contained world that is well-drawn and lived in, operating by its own rules, almost as in a fantasy novel. From the very first pages, I recognized that these were real, human characters, and yet also that magic was a genuine force in the narrative. It’s shockingly effective.
A lot of virtual ink has been spilled in discussing the novels protagonist, Eva, most of it decrying her mothering skills, but I found her to be authentically flawed and clearly shaped by a lifetime of a trauma. Does she make endless mistakes? Does she trust the wrong people, focus on the wrong things? Is she selfish? You bet she is. I love her for every one of these flaws. (Well, except maybe Sammy. I can’t quite forgive Sammy.)
So, the genius of the book is taking a flawed, realistic woman who already operates in a skewed, magic-tinged world, and then turning that world upside down. When her friend is found dead on the riverside in a kind of parody of an earlier tragedy, the situation is made worse by the fact that all signs point to her husband, the father of her two children, seemingly the love of her life.
Eva swings on a wide pendulum in the aftermath of the killing, from righteous anger in defense of her husband, to despair and horror at the thought that she had perhaps been living with a killer. And in between, she stumbles through almost every other emotion as she sets out to solve not just the mystery of her friend’s death, but the secrets of the childhood tragedy that left her broken in the first place.
It’s this element that I found weakest, as River Woman, River Demon goes through the motions of performing a murder mystery plot, while never quite delivering on the structure or careful revelations one expects from the genre. Instead, revelatory information is just kind delivered, meaning that most of the previous investigation was really unnecessary.
It’s not enough to spoil my enjoyment of the novel, but it did frustrate it.
Similarly frustrating was the characters’ penchant for delivering speeches rather than dialogue, as the novel works to fit so many ideas into its working that these characters find themselves carrying too much weight.
And yet… In the end, Eva’s distinct, and distinctly flawed point of view is enough to carry the book, as are the lyrical, often razor sharp descriptions.
It’s a beautifully written, complex character study, draped over a hastily made narrative structure, but it’s enough.