The Mummy gets a mundane YA fantasy treatment
What The River Knows is the latest YA fantasy that has caught everyone’s attention for drawing inspiration from the iconic action fantasy The Mummy and murder mystery Death On The Nile. Written by Isabel Ibañez, it marks the beginning of her exciting Secrets of the Nile duology.
Apart from its compelling setting, it has the perfect formula for a successful romantic adventure. There’s the fun little enemies-to-lovers trope, a headstrong female protagonist swept up in a conspiracy and mysterious disappearances amidst magical twists and turns. But does it succeed? Let’s find out.
What The River Knows takes us to late 19th century Argentina where 19-year-old Inez Olivera is heartbroken to learn that her parents are presumed dead after a botched archaeological dig in Egypt. Armed with only a magical ring from her father, Inez embarks on a journey to Cairo to uncover the truth.
However, her uncle Ricardo and his smug assistant, Whit Hayes, seem determined to get her out of the country. Inez can’t shake the feeling that something sinister is afoot, as she tries to unravel the mystery of her parents’ demise while fending off the persistent Whit.
As one dives into the story, the author makes us one with the main protagonist. Readers can empathize with Inez from her frustration when that annoying antique officer snatches her ring to the bittersweet pang when she encounters a familiar face she never thought she’d see again.
Must say, the author weaves culturally-rooted dialogues pretty cleverly into the narrative. The fact that she’s bilingual, just like our heroine Inez, ensures there is no cringe-worthy “Hola, oh I mean Hello” clownery.
What The River Knows’ story kicks off at a leisurely pace, giving us a rich backdrop for Inez’s backstory. But when the plot picks up speed, it really takes off! Mysterious disappearances and a gripping conspiracy involving evil corporations keep us on our toes. The second half of the book challenges everything we thought we knew, including our perceptions of Ricardo and Inez’s parents.
Isabel Ibañez’s thorough research into Egypt’s history and landscapes pays off, delivering vivid descriptions as if we are right in the middle of the bustling streets of British-ruled Cairo or onboard a ship on the tranquil waters of the Nile. While the writing style might not be exceptionally concise and sometimes veers towards the dramatic, it effectively immerses us in the story.
Sometimes the actions are robotic and out of character, as if the author is pushing the characters in a certain direction rather than letting them be independent individuals with their own thoughts and behaviour. There are a few cliches as well, especially when it comes to describing characters’ movements (think too much smirking and eye-rolls).
One odd quirk is the random insertion of Whit’s point of view at the end of some chapters, feeling like an afterthought. There are repeated and disjointed paragraphs as well, as if the author is shifting gears and then backtracking. Also, hope the minor typos are sorted out as the book gets further polished.
The world-building is complicated and demands a bit more concentration to understand. Unfortunately, there’s not enough magic, neglected for the sake of romance. The book doesn’t delve deeper into the fascinating concept of Inez being the only one who can sense magic and the exploration of Cleopatra’s memories either. While being part of the fantasy genre, What The River Knows does the bare minimum for the plot which honestly would have worked even without any magic.
Now, about the romance—it’s a bit forced, and some might find it problematic if they really dissect it. It feels out of place, lacking the build-up you’d expect in a romantic novel. Inez appears obsessed, and Whit just succumbs, which doesn’t quite brew the chemistry you’d hope for.
There are plenty of great YA fantasy romances with a hint of toxicity, but the setup here feels like it could have taken a different route, especially when the blueprint is right there with the heart-fluttering romance of Rick and Evie from The Mummy.
Speaking of The Mummy, if this book is meant to be inspired by the film, it comes across as rather superficial. You won’t find any daring pyramid chases with a menacing pharaoh hot on their heels or the iconic banter of Rick and Evie. The author sets herself up by mentioning such a beloved franchise as we just cannot help but compare.
And then there’s Death On The Nile, another source of inspiration. Given the enormous shoes to fill, the book is bound to fail as some readers pick it up with some very high expectations.
Even if you can distance yourself from The Mummy and Death On The Nile and appreciate What The River Knows on its own terms, it’s a peculiar blend of historical adventure, romance, and a dash of whimsical magic realism rather than YA fantasy romance.
The idea and premise are brimming with potential, but it is poorly executed, especially with some room for improvement in the writing department. But if you’re a fan of romance with feisty characters and those comforting, if slightly overused, cliches set against the intriguing backdrop of an Egyptian mystery, give it a shot.
Verdict - 5/10