By Scott Baker
Published September 2007
Reviewed January 8, 2008
Originally reviewed in: BookReview.com
The setting is Blue Heron, a small island in Northern Minnesota. Is it an archaeological site, renowned as the home and resting place of legendary Native American shaman Voice-in-the-Sky? Or is it a radioactive anomaly, generating power that could explain the growth of the universe? Or is it a gateway to a world beyond ours, a world only visible in the visions of a shaman?
It may be all of these or none of these, and the search to find out which is the nexus of “Akiiwan,” the first book in Scott Baker’s “Neitherworld” series. A novel that fits into mystery, science fiction and historical genres, “Akiiwan” focuses on the archaeological team of Doctor Samantha Horner and their research into an obscure Ojibwe sect native to the Blue Heron. The end result is a brilliant, elemental tale that defies description as much as the island does.
All of the characters have a different explanation, and their diversity is the first strength of “Akiiwan.” In one chapter a professor of cosmology explains how astronomical constants and constellations are tied to the island, while a paleontologist interprets a boulder of Native American pictographs only a few chapters later. Mixed with the natives’ fantastical prophecies and traditions of Ojibwe culture, characters – and readers – have to look closely for the right answer.
A genre hybrid like this runs the risk of collapsing into obtuseness – especially at over 500 pages – but Baker holds the text together with a strong narrative and thorough detail. The particulars of exactly what Voice-in-the-Sky represented and the truth of his teachings unfold gradually, and we learn what happens at the same pace as Samantha and her team. Several scenes build an impressive level of suspense, including various attacks by wild animals and a rainstorm on a primordial scale.
To further break the uniformity of a long novel, Baker incorporates several structural alterations in the form of illustrations. These are not complicated paintings inserted to distract from poor writing, but simple black-and-whites which adroitly reinforce a reader’s mental images. Text is altered in an interesting manner as well, with the closing chapter including of a 1600s French lieutenant’s diary physically printed in an antique-style type.
“Akiiwan” does experience a few bumps here and there – a slimy government official feels like too much of an archetype, and an oral history in Ojibwe fashion isn’t exciting enough to open the book – but those are unimportant next to the myth that Baker has created. It’s three times as long as most novels, and yet right after finishing it I wanted to delve right into the second volume.