Review: What the River Knows by Isabel IbañezWhat the River Knows by Isabel Ibañez
Series: Secrets of the Nile #1
Published by Hodder & Stoughton on November 14, 2023
Genres: Fantasy, Historical, Romance, Young Adult
Pages: 416
Format: Audiobook
Source: the library

A divine exploration. A deadly secret. A desire she can't escape.
'Expertly plotted, explosively adventurous, and burning with romance' STEPHANIE GARBER
The Mummy meets Death on the Nile in this lush, immersive historical fantasy set in 19th century Egypt, filled with adventure, laugh-out-loud banter, a slow-burn rivals-to-lovers romance, and a dangerous race.

In the glittering society of nineteenth-century Buenos Aires, Inez Olivera has everything, except the one thing she really wants: her parents, who frequently leave her behind on their globetrotting adventures.

Then she receives a terrible letter: her parents have passed away in mysterious circumstances. Determined to uncover the truth, she sets sails for their last port-of-call, Cairo, bringing only her sketch pads and an ancient ring that her father sent to her for safekeeping.

But upon her arrival in Egypt, the ring flares with ancient magic, and Inez is thrust into a treacherous game that could threaten her life - and into the path of her new guardian's infuriatingly handsome assistant, who seems determined to thwart her at every turn . . .

Authors LOVE for What the River Knows

'Take a plucky heroine, a historically grounded Indiana Jones-esque adventure through Ancient Egypt, and add a surprising dollop of magic - it's a recipe for a delightful read' JODI PICOULT

'What the River Knows has it all: page-turning mystery, adventure, intrigue and betrayal, laugh-out-loud banter, and slow-burn romance' MARY E. PEARSON

'A truly enchanting work of storytelling. All the stars' HEATHER FAWCETT

'Ibanez's worldbuilding is masterful, and the chemistry between her characters is swoon worthy' ELIZABETH LIM

'A thrilling adventure the whole way through' RACHEL GRIFFIN

'Luminous and enchanting . . . A romantic, spellbinding adventure' REBECCA ROSS

Readers LOVE for What the River Knows

'Absolutely charming' NetGalley - five star review

'Excuse me, but archaeology? Cleopatra? Speculative touches? This book is made for me!' NetGalley - five star review

'This book was everything!! Literally, everything about it was purely magical' NetGalley - five star review

'THAT ENDING. I NEED ANSWERS AND I NEED THEM NOW' NetGalley - five star review

A blend of history, mythology, mystery, and romance – What the River Knows marks the beginning of a buzzy new YA series.

On the brink of adulthood, Inez has been raised as a gently bred lady of Argentinian high society. Neglected by her parents, archaeologists who spend half the year abroad, Inez lives with her aunt and cousins. Studying Egyptian history and hieroglyphics helps her feel close to her distant parents – right up until the moment she receives a letter from her Uncle Ricardo informing her that her parents have been presumed dead. With Ricardo her new guardian, Inez sneaks out of her aunts house and boards a ship to Egpyt – unchaperoned – to demand answers. Ricardo is furious at her arrival and insists that she return immediately to Argentina. Inez is adamant that she stay in Egypt, learn the truth of her parents’ demise, and join in the family business of archaeology.

Contrary to everyone’s assumptions, Inez is determined and resourceful, and she has an ace in the hole: her puzzling affinity for the magic of Ancient Egypt. With her Uncle’s infuriatingly handsome assistant Whit at her side, it isn’t long before Inez is trekking off to her first dig site. As she begins to uncover secrets of both the ancient world and her parents’ deaths, Inez wonders if some secrets may be better left buried.

The blossoming romance between the enigmatic Whit and Inez is a narrative focal point…which is too bad, because I wasn’t feeling it. Oh, their attraction is real enough, but the emotional side develops rather abruptly. Whit is a mysterious and enigmatic character, so it’s difficult for Inez (and the reader) to fully trust him. The lack of trust and the distinctly “YA” feeling of their dynamic really hampered my enjoyment. Honestly though, I’m not sure I would’ve been on board either way because Inez clearly needs to find her feet as an adult first, and pursue romance second. 

It's rare to find a novel set in the era of "Egyptology" that examines the impact of this colonial work on Egyptian people.

Inez is a high-spirited heroine, determined to live her own life and make her own choices. I admire this aspect of her character, but unfortunately her choices have a tendency to be questionable. Headstrong and reckless, Inez insists on involving herself in dangerous activities without any thought to the consequences. There are consequences for Inez’s foolhardy behaviour, which I appreciate, but I couldn’t help but feel annoyed with her carrying on about how it’s all her fault. Yes, clearly…and yet she persists! I suppose this is good characterization – she is a teenager – but it was frustrating. 

Isabel Ibañez is at her best when she turns her pen towards the setting, with evocative descriptions of 19th century Cairo and lush depictions of iconic landmarks like the Nile, pyramids, and Pharaoh’s tombs. It’s clear that a great deal of research went into this project, as much of Inez’s story draws on ancient Egyptian history to craft the magic system. I was especially impressed by the politics of What the River Knows, paying careful attention to colonialism and Orientalism. The harsh historical realities of the illegal sales of cultural artifacts and the lack of opportunities for actual Egyptians to be involved in archaeology grounded the story. If the narrative had stayed primarily in this vein, this could’ve been a five-star read for me.

The sedate pacing of the first act is a good choice, allowing the two most important characters (Inez and Egypt) to take center stage. The plot only begins to take shape and gain momentum once Inez is established as a protagonist. This might frustrate some, but to be quite frank, I thought this first section of the novel was the strongest. The addition of multiple genres and plot threads felt a smidge unfocused and chaotic to me, when they were clearly meant to be pulse-pounding. What really did get my pulse pounding was that jaw-dropping cliffhanger ending! Wow, talk about raising the stakes for the sequel. I haven’t yet decided if I’ll be picking up book two when it comes out, but if I do, it’ll be because of the setting.

Recommended for lovers of Ancient Egypt,  fans of The Mummy franchise, and YA historical fiction readers.