A beautiful story of a young woman traveling along a river. Eliss is smart, observant, and hard-working, and if she were any less competent she and her brother would probably be dead in a ditch somewhere. Instead, her tenacious dedication to survival means that her brother can explore the meaning of his mixed heritage and Eliss can slowly come to understand her own character and that of her lost mother.
This is set in the same fantasy world as The House of the Stag and Anvil of the World. Like those, issues of oppression and discrimination based on sex, race and class are ever-present but always lightly handled. Magic is threaded throughout, but never overwhelming--it's just a part of the characters' lives, not the solution to all their problems and certainly never a deus ex machina. The world building is top-notch here--the world is consistent and coherent, but never boring.
And some of that excellence is due to where Baker chose to focus her gaze. Instead of powerful people making decisions that bend the world, she chose to write about the lives of a ship's crew, who have little money and less power. This subversion of the usual fantasy storyline makes the dialog, personalities and character growth shine all the more because they're so unexpected. A song is written about Eliss's mother, and Eliss is at first furious, because it turns her mother's dingy life of poor choices into an epic tragedy. She's slightly reconciled to it when one of her mother's fellow divers mentions how grateful she is that finally, they have a song about a diver, no matter how truthful it is. Eventually, Eliss begins to come to terms with the idea that her mother was a silly woman who let her children down--but she was also a woman who'd suffered terrible personal tragedy.
I mentioned the dialog earlier, and I want to emphasize that it fantastic. It always feels natural and organic to the character, and it is dashed through with sparks of wit. By the end of this book, I felt like I knew each of the characters, that I'd shared bunk-space with them, that I'd eaten dinner beside them. I wish the book hadn't ended, because I miss them.