With The River of Souls, Robert McCammon‘s historical thriller series rolls into its fifth volume with a full head of steam. Matthew Corbett, the problem-solving star of the series, is still recovering from the events of the previous book, The Providence Rider, in which he encountered his arch nemesis, the nefarious Professor Fell. The encounter left Corbett reeling, and his employers urge him to take a cupcake assignment in nearby Charles Town as a way to further his recuperation.
The assignment – the escorting of a young woman to a ritzy ball – proves to be the opposite of restful. Corbett’s date with Pandora Prisskitt puts him in the crosshairs of Prisskitt’s hopeful suitor, a mountain of a man named Magnus Muldoon. Muldoon has already buried a couple of young gentlemen in pursuit of Prisskitt’s hand, and he promptly crashes the ball and challenges Corbett to a duel. Muldoon has an expansive physical advantage, but Corbett lives largely on his wits, and quickly hits on an unlikely solution to his predicament.
This encounter results in an uneasy partnership between Corbett and Muldoon, and the duo soon find themselves swept up in events far more serious than the pursuit of a vapid debutante. A 16-year-old girl from a nearby plantation has been murdered, and three slaves accused of involvement in her killing have gone on the run. A large mob, spurred by the promise of a plentiful reward, has set out in pursuit of the three men, but Corbett learns a few facts about the crime that lead him to believe the real murderer may be hiding among them in plain sight. Determined to see that true justice is served, Corbett and Muldoon join the search, a frantic journey that carries them down a treacherous river known locally as “The River of Souls.”
Being this deep into the series means McCammon can spend less time establishing the world and era the Corbett books are set in, and that freedom results in the leanest Corbett novel yet. The novel is basically one long chase, anchored by a dangerous run down the river that is one of the tensest, bloodiest, most action-packed sequences McCammon has ever pulled off. Alligators, Indians, deranged tribesmen painted like glowing skeletons – the search for the three runaways is as dark and dangerous as anything Corbett has ever faced, and McCammon takes some real chances with the character’s ultimate fate. While the main story is resolved, The River of Souls ends on a cliffhanger that’s going to make the wait for the next book interminable at best.
Although each of the Corbett books is richer for having read the ones before it, McCammon is careful to make them accessible on their own, and The River of Souls is no exception. Even with several callbacks to Speaks the Nightbird, the first Corbett book, this latest entry is accessible enough for first-time fans to get a taste of what the series is all about without being completely lost.