Review: What the River Knows by Isabel Ibañez

What the River Knows by Isabel Ibañez

Timy reviews What the River Knows, the first book in Isabel Ibañez‘s new YA historical fiction romance duology, The Secrets of the Nile.

An eARC was provided via NetGalley from Hodderscape in exchange for an honest review. What the River Knows will be published on November 14, 2023.

About the Book
Series:The Secrets of the Nile #1
Genre:Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Romance, YA
Publisher:Hodder & Stoughton
Date of Publishing:November 14, 2023
Trigger Warnings:death, gun violence
Page count:414
Possible The Sound of Madness Reading Challenge prompts:
  • Free Your Mind
  • Are You Gonna Be My Girl
  • Justice
  • I’m Still Here
  • Keepsake
  • Middle Fingers
  • Family Portrait
  • Vészhelyzet (Emergency)
  • Centuries
  • Drawn by Sirens
Book Blurb
What the River Knows by Isabel Ibañez

Bolivian-Argentinian Inez Olivera belongs to the glittering upper society of nineteenth century Buenos Aires, and like the rest of the world, the town is steeped in old world magic that’s been largely left behind or forgotten. Inez has everything a girl might want, except for the one thing she yearns the most: her globetrotting parents—who frequently leave her behind.

When she receives word of their tragic deaths, Inez inherits their massive fortune and a mysterious guardian, an archeologist in partnership with his Egyptian brother-in-law. Yearning for answers, Inez sails to Cairo, bringing her sketch pads and an ancient golden ring her father sent to her for safekeeping before he died. But upon her arrival, the old world magic tethered to the ring pulls her down a path where she soon discovers there’s more to her parent’s disappearance than what her guardian led her to believe.

With her guardian’s infuriatingly handsome assistant thwarting her at every turn, Inez must rely on ancient magic to uncover the truth about her parent’s disappearance—or risk becoming a pawn in a larger game that will kill her.

The Mummy meets Death on the Nile in this lush, immersive historical fantasy set in Egypt filled with adventure, a rivals-to-lovers romance, and a dangerous race.

Quote of the Book
Quote Background

“It spread like a vein to the rest of the land, and I understood why the river was revered in Egypt. It gave life and sustenance, it carried one to adventure and discovery, and it also brought you home.”

Song of the Book
Review

I don’t really read YA novels anymore, but the cover of What the River Knows caught my eye, and I got curious. Even more so after reading the blurb and learning that it was labeled as historical fiction as well as fantasy and romance. Plus, I knew that I would need something on the lighter side after a couple of intense SPFBO semi-finalist reading months. And of course, I was right. What the River Knows was a nice change, indeed. And while I enjoyed it, and most likely will pick up the second book – how could I not with that ending? – I don’t really see it being on my favorite books of 2023 list.

What the River Knows is set in late 19th century Egypt when interest in ancient Egypt was blooming, thanks (in part) to Champollion’s efforts in decoding the hieroglyphs just a couple of decades earlier, and archeological expeditions that unearthed several tombs – a process that’s still ongoing to this day. Black market activities are also in bloom – this is the time when a huge amount of artifacts are sold and/or smuggled out of the country to end up both in private collections and public ones exhibited by museums. A majority of which never was returned. I’m telling you all this because 1) it’s fascinating (and also pretty horrifying if you think about it), plus I was watching a couple of docu-series at the time I was reading this book, which was absolutely coincidental, not that I believe in coincidences, and 2) it’s relevant for the book’s plot.

After the news of her parents’ disappearance and assumed death, Inez decides to leave her life in Argentina behind and go to Egypt to meet his uncle and convince him to let her stay. She not only wants answers as to what happened to her parents, but she also wants to know why her parents left her behind to spend half of their life in Egypt, financing her uncle’s excavations and search. And why she was forbidden to go with them, despite her being 19 years old. Of course, things don’t really work out as she imagines, but then, she had a pretty naive look on things to begin with. Not surprisingly, since she lived most of her life sheltered in the higher Argentinian society (I really did wish we’d seen more of her background and culture), without ever traveling, on her own at that. I guess we can cut her some slack on that front.

Sometimes she could be very annoying, especially as she repeatedly moaned about Whit (more on this later), and she made some stupid decisions, and yet, I found myself rooting for her to get the answers she seeks. I also loved some of her banters with Whit, those two could be amusing when they set their mind to it. Plus, they were the only two characters who were mostly fleshed out and didn’t feel kind of one-dimensional, as the rest of the cast. Then again, Whit was mostly brooding and very cryptic and also didn’t have many characteristics besides being the sexy male with some wittiness to him. And yet, I still liked him. I can’t help it, I like the mysterious bad boy types. Especially if they are smart too. I just wish the narrating POVs were a bit (a lot) more equal so we could learn more about him – I’m hoping for book 2. *fingers crossed*

As I said, I enjoyed reading What the River Knows, as it was easy to read and I was invested enough in the characters to want to know what was going to happen next. The pacing was good, the romance was slow-burn and not insta love-y, the banter between the two MCs worked, and the setting was interesting enough. And yet. I wanted less of the pining and more about history, or even more about Egypt in general. A big part of the book is set at this ancient temple site, and while it gets its spotlight, I still felt like I wanted to be immersed more. I wanted more depth to the plotline including the British Empire’s treatment of the relics. I wanted more of the magic. Actually, a lot more would have been good, as we are told that magic exists but it’s fading, and that Inez can feel it from some of the objects and that’s about it. We are not explained magic’s presence in the present world, we are not explained if Inez’s abilities are rare or common. We are not explained why is even magic involved at all – apart from the fact that the person whose tomb they are looking for was rumored to be apt at magic. And some foreshadowing hints that might come into play later as the story progresses. This aspect of the book was underwhelming, and I think a lot of good opportunities were missed.

I also appreciated that Ibañez made her main cast of characters critical to the British Empire and how they dealt with Egyptians. But it probably would have been a better idea to make Inez the daughter of an Egyptian archeologist couple and tell this story from that POV, rather than someone coming from Argentina, who though has a passion for the history of Egypt, has no real understanding of life in that country from the locals’ POV. Inez is also prone to have assumptions of others based on no or very circumstantial evidence, but that can be (partly) explained by her youth and inexperience.

Overall, What the River Knows had some interesting twists, it wasn’t as predictable as I expected (which is always a nice and welcome surprise), but it wasn’t great. With a bit less focus on the romance, some other plotlines could have benefited, thus making the start of this duology excellent. I didn’t have high expectations so I wasn’t disappointed, on the contrary. I’ll go as far as saying having no expectations made me enjoy it more, in fact. It actually had some havier moments I absolutely didn’t see coming, and I’m still not 100% sure they were warranted – or were properly dealt with emotionally on Inez’s part (can’t say more, because spoilers). Which left me scratching my head when I finished reading.

I’m not sure whether fans of The Mummy and Death on the Nile will love this historical YA fiction (emphasis on fiction) or hate it, so What the River Knows might prove to be a pretty divisive book in the end. Personally, I don’t think it lives up to The Mummy (I can only compare to that one, sorry), but I can see why that comparison was used in the marketing. Still, be your own judge, my friends.

Our Judgement
Might Require Their Services - 3.5 Crowns

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