Review: Once Upon A River – A Non-Magical Magical Delight


Title: Once Upon a River
Author: Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
Release Date: December 4th, 2018
Genre(s): Mystery, Historical
Subjects and Themes: Stories about stories
Page Count: 421 (hardback)

Rating: 8.5/10

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On a dark, misty night in the small English village of Radcot, locals gather at the Swan Inn to cap their day with drinks and lore. The 600-year-old pub is a famed hub for storytellers, but the patrons cannot know that their evening will be stranger than any tale they could weave. Into the inn bursts a mysterious man, sopping and bloodied and carrying an unconscious four-year-old girl. But before he can explain who he and the child are, and how they came to be injured, he collapses.

Upriver, two families are searching desperately for their missing daughters. Alice Armstrong has been missing for twenty-four hours, ever since her mother’s suicide. And Amelia Vaughan vanished without a trace two years prior. When the families learn of the lost little girl at the Swan Inn, each wonders if their child has at last been found. But identifying the child may not be as easy as it seems.


So, I’d staunchly avoided Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale when it first came out. The NYT bestseller stamp and the heaps of praise it was getting made me think it was one of those bland mainstream hits.

In other news, I’m a shallow idiot. Because if Once Upon A River is any indication of Setterfield’s talents, I have been missing out on some incredible storytelling.

Once Upon a River is an absolutely delightful, charming, whimsical tale. Take every word in every language that describes the experience of sitting around an open fire swaddled in blankets and listening to a veteran storyteller work their magic, dump them into a pot, stir for a minute or two, and you’ll have Once Upon a River.

And it’s a book I recommend to everyone whether you’re a fan of historical mystery or not, and for several reasons.

1) It’s one of those stories that straddle multiple genres and flirts with the possibility of speculative. So there’s kind of something for everyone.

2) For all you fantasy readers, this is a fantasy that’s not actually a fantasy.

No no no, hear me out. While there are no actual fantastical happenings, the fantasy is in the atmosphere it creates, in its exploration of the unknown and the unexplained. The way that the river seems to be its own character with its own whims. The utter embrace of the magic and the power of stories. It’s got the heart and the soul of what makes a good fantasy a good fantasy.

3) This book is an absolutely unabashed love letter to stories and I don’t know how anyone can say “no” to that.

As we flit through the lives of the colourful characters that inhabit this book, we explore the beauty of the human mind to be able create different stories out of the same event. And how those stories can be controlled but only to a certain extent, after which they take a life of their own and speed off in wild directions.

The book also does a wonderful job exploring the kinds of stories that we tell ourselves for darker purposes. Stories that we create to mask our guilt and pain and sorrow. Lies, if you will. But not really. More like…picking worlds that we can bear living in.

Basically, if you like books, you should read this. And if you don’t like books, then let this be my attempt to convert you to the dark side, because Once Upon a River is a perfect winter read that will make you fall in love with stories–for the first time or for the billionth.


Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

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Tammy January 2, 2019 - 2:57 pm

Lovely review! I really enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale, and I’m quite sure I’ll love this too, when I get a chance to read it.

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky January 8, 2019 - 2:34 am

Thanks, Tammy! I’m hoping to get to Thirteenth Tale in the next couple of months or so. Hope you enjoy this one when you get to it! πŸ™‚

The Reading Hobbit January 2, 2019 - 3:34 pm

Oooh this sounds good! I added it to my TBR list ^^ I love those fantasy that aren’t quite fantasy types of books.

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky January 3, 2019 - 8:20 am

Yay! I hope you enjoy it when/if you get to it! πŸ™‚

Shalini January 2, 2019 - 4:55 pm

Wow you convinced me that I should get this book… It sounds so wonderful… Your review was bang on

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky January 3, 2019 - 8:08 am

Haha well, mission accomplished! πŸ˜€ I hope you enjoy it when/if you get to it!

Kaya @ afictionalbookworm January 2, 2019 - 5:49 pm

This sounds genuinely amazing?! I think I’ll have to check this one out! Great review!!

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky January 6, 2019 - 7:13 am

Ahh it IS amazing! I hope you enjoy it, Kaya <3

Kaya @ afictionalbookworm January 6, 2019 - 3:51 pm

Thank you!!

Vera January 2, 2019 - 6:43 pm

Your wonderful review completely convinced me to give this one a go. It sounds like such an amazing book and I can’t wait to read it.
Thank you! Stories about stories are totally mu thing. 😊

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky January 8, 2019 - 2:33 am

Yes! I’m so glad! I hope you love it when you get to it, Vera. And stories about stories are my jam too πŸ˜€

jennifertarheelreader January 3, 2019 - 3:13 am

Absolutely gorgeous review of this wonder of a book, Kathy! I have not read The Thirteenth Tale for similar reasons, and I fell into Once Upon a River. It is something else! β™₯️

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky January 3, 2019 - 8:10 am

Thank you, Jennifer! The style was not at all what I’d been expecting, which was such a pleasant surprise. I’m definitely going to be checking out The Thirteenth Tale this year. πŸ˜€

Gerry@TheBookNookUK January 3, 2019 - 9:43 pm

ARGH!! I have this one! I requested it and still need to read and review by next week and now I’m wondering why the heckin’ heck I dilly-dallied on it!!!

This moves up my list stat because if it come highly recommended from you Kathy, it’s gots to be good!

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky January 5, 2019 - 10:48 pm

DAWW. And YES go go read it! I think you’ll really like Rita! She’s this super pragmatic, no-nonsense, I’m-all-about-science nurse who tries to unravel the whole mystery, and she’s torn between the maternal instinct the girl brings out in her and her fear of pregnancy and motherhood. I loved her so much. πŸ˜€

Gerry@TheBookNookUK January 6, 2019 - 11:53 am

I’m reading it now! Just over a quarter of the way through and I’m loving it! I have some ideas as to where it’s heading with the child etc. but I could be completely wrong. I’m loving a lot of the characters so far and Rita is definitely one of them! I’m also liking Robert Armstrong but have my suspicions about Robin…

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky January 8, 2019 - 3:18 am

Ohhh…I shouldn’tsayanythingIshouldn’tsayanything. But you *are* on the right track πŸ˜€

Gerry@TheBookNookUK January 11, 2019 - 2:02 pm

I finished reading it this week and now I need to get my review up before release day!!! I have sooooo many thoughts but can’t say publicly because of spoilers! fdhdjshfdjshfgjhdfgh

bookbeachbunny January 4, 2019 - 9:15 pm

Beautifully said! I loved this one but I’m a sucker for books about the power of stories!

Norrie January 5, 2019 - 11:39 am

I’m quite excited about this one! I’m the sort of reader who likes fantasy that is not fantasy πŸ˜€ So this sounds right up my alley.
I read 13th Tale, and it was kind of a random choice – when i bought it years ago, i haven’t heard of the author or knew anything about the book, but i was totally blown away.

Kathy @ Pages Below the Vaulted Sky January 5, 2019 - 10:38 pm

Yeah, her writing was not at ALL what I’d thought it would be! It’s so fable-y. πŸ˜€ And I got the Thirteenth Tale on boxing day so I’m hoping to get to it sometime soon.

evelynreads1 January 14, 2019 - 8:47 am

Great review! I love the coverr of this book!



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