Written by Joe the Revelator
It's a story as old as time. Boy meets stream-goddess. Boy professes his love for stream-goddess. Boy promises to slay a larger, more powerful river god called the Changeling, who is fed by the steam in an endlessly painful, infinitely unendurable cycle, which has existed long before mankind.
Perkar, a young man whose only female companion is the beautiful goddess, is certainly motivated enough for the task, if only he knew how to slay a god. His family and friends encourage him to settled down with a wife and a cattle pasture of his own, but nothing compares to the love he feels for the stream. When an expedition is organized to meet with another forest god, downstream of his goddess, Perkar is excited to join. His hope is that this "forest lord" may have a weapon to kill the Changeling.
Along the banks of the Changeling and over the waters rests the city of the river people; a folk who worship and praise the river god. Their nobility are said to have the Changeling's magic in their blood, and the ability to use a portion of his power. But if an individual is born with too much of the river, their body begins to deform, and those "Blessed" are brought to the underground palace to dwell for all-time.
This is the secret which princess Hezhi stumbles upon before she reaches puberty, when the signs of the river are most likely to come out. The world seems to be conspiring against the bookish young girl. Rumors of an assassin are abound, and the priests in charge of monitoring the nobility are becoming suspicious of her. Out of desperation she makes a wish to one of the river's fountains. A wish for a hero to rescue her, a hero from faraway lands.
I feel many of my recommendations for fantasy novels come off double-edged. I rave about interesting books while simultaneously picking at their faults, or more often, the distracting tendencies of the author. It's hard to find good fantasy, I believe, because anyone in the genre can get lazy when they don't want to explain facts or plot holes, and they fill it in with nonsense. Gregory Keyes may have a lot of myth, magic, and mysticism, but he never uses it to pave over the rough writing.
Something else I've enjoyed is Keyes' attention to supporting characters. I often found myself wondering about the background of Hezhi's tutor, Ghan the curmudgeonly old librarian. Or about Tsem the princess's hulking guardian. Or Ngangata, the self-possessed scout who seems uncommonly wise beside the protagonist Perkar. In almost every instance the author manages to satisfy my curiosity with well-placed dialogue, developing the character with quick, efficient strokes.
The Waterborn feels every inch like a myth of old. It incorporates the notion of gods existing in every facet of nature, much like the spirits in Native American lore, or the Kami of Japan. Add to this a hero's struggle of Greek proportion with modern prose. By the end you've been given a whole entity within the book, and not just a "to be continued..." chunk of saga about slaying The Dark Master.