I am conflicted about Tributaries. It’s one of those books where some aspects I absolutely loved, and some I didn’t like at all. First of all, I have to point out that gorgeous cover. I just want to stare at it for a while. Okay, onto to the book itself. We’re first introduced to Nyx, a young woman who is also a cat shapeshifter. In the prologue, we get a glimpse of her attempted suicide as background to her life in the beginning of the novel. She is struggling, stealing small amounts of food in order to survive. When she’s discovered by villagers and chased, Nyx finds herself unexpectedly rescued by a passing warrior woman, Elmiryn. Now in her debt, Elmiryn asks Nyx to accompany her on her quest to slay a demon (that may or may not exist).
As you can probably tell by that description, Tributaries starts off pretty grim. Nyx is in a very dark place in her life, having lost almost everything and everyone from her past. She is introspective and is suspicious of other people. It’s with the introduction of Elmiryn that I started to get into the novel. Elmiryn brings some much needed humor and lightness to the narrative, though we quickly discover that she is dealing with her own issues. She also brings some purpose to Nyx’s life, with the proposition of this quest. With the travelling duo, a warrior woman and a smaller companion, I immediately latched onto the Xena vibe. The characters themselves don’t resemble Xena or Gabrielle very much, but just that comparison was an immediate plus for me.
I feel like the strength of the novel is in the interaction between Elmiryn and Nyx. They have completely different personalities, and it’s fascinating to watch their friendship (and eventual romance) slowly build. What I appreciated the most was that despite the apparent power difference, by the end of the book they both seem like equals. They have very different strengths, and they use those to take care of each other. Nyx may be smaller and less trained in combat, but she helps Elmiryn to stay rooted in reality, and is there to be a voice of reason.
The romance was also adorable. Elmiryn is an incorrigible flirt, and Nyx greets this with blushes and avoidance, but for the most part Elle’s flirting is light and harmless, not an attempt to persuade Nyx so much as a form of communication she would probably use with any friend. And one of my favourite parts of the book was watching Nyx find herself more attracted to Elle–and, as a reader, realizing that Nyx’s avoidance had more to do with deference and a misguided adherence to politeness than it did with her own feelings. This slow build creates a compelling, believable romantic subplot.
Where the book lost me was when it came to the plot and setting. The worldbuilding felt pretty sketchily defined for the most part. While Ailurean (cat shapeshifter) society got quite a bit of detail, the world outside of that didn’t seem to be fully realized. It also seemed to be unevenly plotted. There were moments in the book where I was ignoring things I should be doing in order to read just one more chapter, and then other stretches where I was reluctant to pick the book up again. Similarly, the tone seems to jump around throughout the book. When it’s at its best, it balances dark topics with Elmiryn’s humour, but when we lose that lightness from Elle, Tributaries seems to lose its footing.
The problem for me is that for a Fantasy book–and I’ll admit that I’ve read very few Fantasy books, so I’m not very familiar with the genre–most of the conflict happens inside people’s heads. Nyx’s main conflict is that her bestial side is not just an aspect of her personality, but what seems to be a fully-formed individual, one who is violent and fighting for control of their shared body. There are even scenes that take place inside Nyx’s mental landscape, in a battle for who will be contained and who will dominate. Elmiryn’s main conflict is also a mental one. When she first tries to explain her curse to Nyx, my note in my copy was “Ah, so she has the curse of existentialism!” And it’s true that this curse is fairly philosophical. Elle has difficulties in determining what is reality, in keeping contact with her own memories, even in identifying her body as an extension of herself. It really seems like a constant state of existential crisis. Both characters, in addition to their complex psychological states, also have mysterious tragic back stories that are alluded to. One or the other would be fine, but both felt like there was too much to fit into one novel. Even the antagonist, the demon, is mostly mental. [mild spoilers, highlight to read] He communicates through music, and even the physical space the climax of the story takes place in seems more like a mental space. [end spoilers]
As a whole, the plot didn’t quite come together for me. I do understand that it’s the first book in the series, and likely the worldbuilding will be fleshed out more in the next books, and hopefully there will be more space to address topics introduced in depth. In this book, though, it felt like there were too many concepts being juggled without having a solid plot to root it. (The climax of the book felt muddled to me.) One aspect, Tobias’s book that Nyx excerpts throughout, I didn’t really understand the point of, and ending with the epilogue being a chapter from this book was unsatisfying.
At the same time, there are so many things I really enjoyed about the book. Both main characters are fascinating and three dimensional, and I loved seeing them interact. Though I felt like having both overburdened the book, I am intrigued by both Elmiryn and Nyx’s mental struggles and want to see how they play out. Plus, Tributaries does set up an interesting quest narrative for the next book, which I enjoy. So as much as I felt like some parts of this book were difficult to get through, the good parts were good enough that I would like to continue with the series, because I have high hopes that it will improve from here.
Also, as a side note, I first head about this book from the author’s blog post about a review, and I have to say, I don’t see how anyone could read this relationship as straight. Elmiryn is a huge flirt. In the first couple chapters, she says, “Hey, wait a minute. You think I’m unsettling? As in, ‘Gee, I hope she makes a go for my pants’ Or as in, ‘I think this crazy wench is going to shiv my hide’?” How do you read that as straight?? Amazing.