Named one of the Top 25 Best Novels of 2017 by Paste Magazine!
“The most exciting literary adventure fiction I've read since Deliverance.” –Howard Frank Mosher, author of God's Kingdom
In The River of Kings, bestselling author of Fallen Land Taylor Brown artfully weaves three narrative strandstwo brothers’ journey down an ancient river, their father’s tangled past, and the buried history of the river’s earliest peopleto evoke a legendary place and its powerful hold on the human imagination.
The Altamaha River, Georgia’s “Little Amazon,” is one of the last truly wild places in America. Crossed by roads only five times in its 137 miles, the black-water river is home to thousand-year-old virgin cypress, direct descendants of eighteenth-century Highland warriors, and a staggering array of rare and endangered species. The Altamaha is even rumored to harbor its own river monster, as well as traces of the oldest European fort in North America.
Brothers Hunter and Lawton Loggins set off to kayak the river, bearing their father’s ashes toward the sea. Hunter is a college student, Lawton a Navy SEAL on leave; they were raised by an angry, enigmatic shrimper who loved the river, and whose death remains a mystery that his sons are determined to solve. As the brothers proceed downriver, their story alternates with that of Jacques le Moyne, the first European artist in North America, who accompanied a 1564 French expedition that began as a search for riches and ended in a bloody confrontation with Spanish conquistadors and native tribes.
Twining past and present in one compelling narrative, and illustrated with drawings that survived the 1564 expedition, The River of Kings is Taylor Brown’s second novel: a dramatic and rewarding adventure through history, myth, and the shadows of family secrets.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)|
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The River of Kings
By Taylor Brown
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Taylor Brown
All rights reserved.
Altamaha River, Day 1
The river, storm-swollen and heavy, gleams like a long dark muscle in the earth, a serpent sliding mindless through the yet-bare arcade of river birch and cypress that lines its banks. The two brothers stand motionless over the waters, silent, then haul their kayaks onto their shoulders, bearing them bloodred and blue down the old boat ramp, the concrete scarred beneath them like ancient stone. A pair of fractured gullies, parallel, marks the hard decades of boat trailers and trucks, and the traces shine wet and broken in the early light. The ramp runs like a dagger into the shallows, vanishing into the tea-dark current.
The brothers wear short-torso paddling vests, each with a silver dive knife affixed in an over-heart sheath. Their spray skirts hang from their waists like floppy tutus. They carry sufficient provisions for five nights on the river: canned beans and freeze-dried fruit, mixed nuts and combat rations and a flask of Kentucky bourbon. They carry eight gallons of fresh water stored in bottles and plastic bladders, along with sleeping bags and insect repellent and a tent they'll use only if it rains. On one of the boats, lashed aft of the cockpit, they carry five pounds of ash in a black nylon dry bag.
Hunter, the younger, steps knee-deep into the current, and he can feel the weight of it pulling at his calves and ankles, the dark pull that is like an ambition. The spring rains charge down the dark swales of the Appalachian foothills, rumbling in wider and deeper confluence, birthing rivers that slither for the sea. Midway, they tumble and crash over the Fall Line, the belt of shoals and waterfalls and hydroelectric dams that marks the lost edge of the continent, past which the state of Georgia was once the bottom of a prehistoric sea. The fossils of ancient corals and mollusks are found far up-country, and the land is full of sharks' teeth.
Hunter wears one on a string around his neck. It's the size of an arrowhead, with a jet-black root and blue-gray enamel, the edges slightly serrated. He found it digging for baitworms as a boy, several miles inland of the coast. It is from Megalodon, the fifty-ton shark of the Cenozoic era. He and his brother are putting in deep below the Fall Line, down in the ancient seabed of slash pine and cypress and gum, while above them roam heavy gray monsters of cloud.
Lawton sits erect in his boat, waiting.
"Boy, you planning to lollygag all day or what?"
Hunter looks down at him. His older brother has a bushy red beard, fire-hued, that he grew in-country. In some of his pictures, the other men have black ovals instead of faces, and the mountains and vehicles and buildings are of a color: sand.
"I'm coming," says Hunter. "Jesus, your horses run off?"
"I want to make the house before dark."
"So you said. You keep badgering me, you'll get an ass-whipping before we even get there."
Lawton, forty pounds heavier, grins. His eyes a vicious, merry blue.
"I'd like to see that."
"Keep it up, big boy, you'll have a front-row seat."
Hunter settles himself into the cockpit, checking the ashes are secure at his back. The eight-liter bag is waterproof, held down by crisscrosses of elastic deck rigging. He wanted to store the bag under one of the hatches for safekeeping, but Lawton wouldn't have it.
"The old man ought to see his last ride down the river, don't you think?"
Hunter hadn't said what he was thinking: the old man was long past seeing.
They push off, letting the river ease them out into its flow. The ramp recedes behind them, the pickups and trailers grown toylike, and the river stretches itself through the trees. They are outside the mill town of Jesup, Georgia, some fifty miles to the coast by crow flight, but their journey seaward will be twice that long, the river winding its way through the lowcountry before them, curling nearly back onto itself again and again, growing ever more brackish and tidal before it empties its mouth into the sea.
Half a mile downriver stands the old Doctortown Railroad Trestle, the iron trussworks red-rusting over pilings of wet stone. This is the Altamaha Bridge, where state militia armed with two cannon and a rail-mounted siege gun held off a brigade of Union cavalry — one of the only stumbles in Sherman's long march to the sea. Hunter squints, searching the woods for men on horseback, earthworks bristling with bayonets or gun barrels, purple plumes of gun smoke. The world alive from his history books. But the riverbanks are quiet, the ghosts asleep in the shade.
He looks to the bridge. Two boys who should be at school sit hunched on the edge of the tracks, bare feet dangling. They are watching wads of their spit swirl down into the current, comparing whose is fastest. One of them looks up, seeing the kayakers. He squints an eye, aiming, and shoots them the bird. He elbows his buddy, and now they're both doing it, both-handed, grinning like fat-cheeked little devils.
Lawton's neck swells like a pony keg.
"Them little sons of bitches."
"Same as we would of done, that age."
Lawton isn't listening. He lays his paddle flat across his lap and gives them the bird in kind, pumping his arm up and down like a trucker on his air horn, his middle finger slightly bent from some old fistfight or doorjamb or car hood. On the belly of his forearm, there is a tattoo the size of a postage stamp, the tiny skeleton of a frog.
"Boy, get you some of that!" He slaps his arm for emphasis. "Get you some!"
They have to paddle hard for the cover of the bridge, passing through a hail of spittle and curse. They slide white-flecked into the shadowed hollows of the span, the pilings graffitied like cave art on either side of them. Above them the thump of bare feet, the enemy repositioning for a second barrage. Lawton lifts a hand from his paddle, two sharp chops.
"Spread out. Don't let them concentrate their fire."
His face bristles with flame. He shows his teeth to the coming light.CHAPTER 2
New France, June 1564
Jacques Le Moyne stands on the quarterdeck of the three-hundred-ton man-of-war, the Ysabeau, the hull timbers groaning beneath his boots. A pair of brigantines trail in the flagship's wake, their towering mainsails challenging the tall trees that line the riverbanks like sentinels of this new world. Le Moyne has his sketchbook out to capture them — les cyprès — before darkness falls. They are as tall as the topmasts, soaring giants with green ledges of leaves, their branches trailing gray mosses that sway in the wind like the long beards of indigents. Some stand from cutbanks white as sugar, the gray skeletons of their roots clutched for purchase, their lowest reaches blacked with tide.
He draws them.
They sailed from Le Havre on April 22, a three-ship fleet with three hundred colonists, Huguenots mainly, soldiers and sailors and noblemen in flight from Catholic swords. A few musicians, with pipes and ditties to entertain the garrison, and one artist: he, Jacques Le Moyne de Morgue, commissioned by the King of France to map the coastline, the rivers and bays, and to catalogue the beasts and foliage that reveal themselves in this new land. The Spanish call the territory La Florida, but Le Moyne's king would have it La Nouvelle-France.
The expedition's leader, René de Laudonnière, stands near the helm. His hands are clasped behind his back, his chest swelled full. He was second-in-command during the disastrous expedition of 1562, which established the outpost of Charlesfort on one of the coastal islands to the north. Latrines were dug, walls raised, a twenty-five-man garrison left while the ships returned to France for supplies.
Only after accepting his commission did Le Moyne learn the fate of that settlement. Resupply was delayed, the men of the garrison soon starving and diseased. There was mutiny, the ranking officer murdered, and some of the men fled into the wilds to live like beasts among les hommes sauvages. Still others, desperate to escape, constructed a ship of their own, caulked with pine pitch and rigged with sails of stitched bedclothes, an open vessel in which they attempted to cross the ocean. They were picked up off the English coast, half-dead and sun-blistered like the victims of some new plague. A ship of lepers, they looked, cast out to sea. They had eaten their meager store of corn, their shoes and belts and own dry-burned skin. In the end they had subsisted on the blood and flesh of their own brothers, men sacrificed so that the rest might live. They had not simply eaten their dead. They had killed them first, by vote and dagger.
These stories, whispered after dark as the sea-wind skirled in the sails, became commonplace on the voyage across, the tellers bright-eyed with power, with the dread and fear they instilled. Le Moyne, try as he might, could not help but listen. He had been trained from an early age as a painter of flowers and fruits, tubers and leafy plants, the stuff of tamed gardens and somnolent drawing rooms. Now he was sailing to a land far over the edge of the earth, a savage Eden, to hear it told, where one could be eaten as easily by man as by beast.
There were the Carib Indians of the islands, rumored to have the heads of wild dogs, who butchered and ate the flesh of their own kind, and men of northern kingdoms with long wings and vests of golden fur. There were stories of headless tribes whose faces were embedded in their breasts, like some outward growth of the heart, and giantesses said to pleasure themselves with the stiffened bodies of the men they killed.
Some of these wonders had been rendered in ink or lead and distributed throughout the cities of Europe, though none by an artist who drew on more than hearsay. Le Moyne would be the first. During the long sea-nights of storytelling, when his heart raced like a rabbit in his chest, he recalled that he was chosen for this task, by God and by king. Over the long voyage, his hand itched for something to draw besides the men hauling at halyards and wielding marlinspikes, clinging spiderlike to ratlines as the ship rocked them through the endless troughs. He wanted only to begin.
In early June, there were cries and hurrahs from the men, the thunder of boots across the deck. Le Moyne scampered topside in time to see the whistling cloud of swallows that heralded land. La Florida hove into view. The coast was unlike any Le Moyne had seen. The sea penetrated the land in a maze of thrusting arms, inlets and sounds and rivers and creeks that shattered the coast into a multitude of sea islands, every spit of high ground protected by waving swords of marsh reeds. They sailed into a wide river furrowed by the gleaming backs of dolphins, and Le Moyne bent over the capstan with paper and stylus, trying to trace the coast as they'd taught him in the cartography school at Dieppe. He looked up to find figures swarming the riverbank like ants, the white blade of beach soon blacked with bonfires.
Laudonnière assembled a landing party. He looked at Le Moyne.
"You, Le Roux."
"Le Moyne, monsieur."
"Le Moyne. Can you handle a gun?"
Le Moyne could only nod. His uncle had insisted he learn firearms before going abroad.
They waded ashore to greet the natives, the iron barrels of their arquebuses arrayed like organ pipes, their swords banging against their legs. The surf exploded against their knees. The natives waited on the beach with round eyes, white as bone, and Le Moyne could smell them as he neared: an animal musk, smoky and wild. They surrounded the white men in twitching rings, their limbs long and powerful, their skin queered with inks and mazelike designs. They had long fingernails, sharpened into claws, their ears yoked with inflated fish bladders. Their eyes darted about, quick as baitfish. Like children they reached out, shyly, their brown fingers seeking the godlike torsos of the landing party's armor, the long black beards that pointed their chins.
All the while they chattered in their strange tongue, the words skittering too fleetly to catch. Le Moyne could decipher only one word, said again and again like a chant: Saturiwa. Now there were more of the savages, a brown sea of flesh on the beach, and suddenly they parted. A chieftain strode forth through the throng. He was dark as stained wood, his body knotted, swelled with oaklike burls.
"Saturiwa," they said. "Saturiwa."
In the man's hand lay an ingot of silver, like a brick cut from the moon.
Le Moyne watched the eyes of his countrymen widen, spark.
The native bowed and presented the offering to Laudonnière — the French chief — and Laudonnière bowed in turn, drawing the ingot against his chest. The chieftain beckoned them: Follow me into the woods. His warriors mimicked the gesture.
This way, they gestured. This way.
Wary, the landing party followed the chieftain into a wood of sandy pine, the flesh of his warriors swimming through the trees on every side, shadowing them. Before long the pines broke onto a small clearing, and there Le Moyne saw the first scene he would record of this new land: a six-sided pillar of stone thrust white from the earth, one facet carved with the fleur-de-lis, the royal arms of France. The head of the stone was crowned in wreaths and flowers. At its foot lay baskets of fruit and roots, yellow gourds and discs of gleaming oil, quivers of arrows and scarred war clubs. Offerings, they looked, to some savage god. Natives lay crumpled before the idol, gape-mouthed, like grievers under the cross. This was the marker erected by the ill-fated expedition of 1562, pronouncing dominion over the land.
The chieftain stood before the French. His black hair was knotted high atop his head, like the limbs of a trussed fowl, and from this topknot sprang a pair of banded tails that arched each to a side, bouncing on his shoulders. He was nearly naked, his manhood curled against a flap of animal skin that covered his loins. His nose and forehead were of a plane, flat as a ram's. He kept waving at the column with his claws, chattering in his unknown tongue. Laudonnière looked to their interpreter, one of the officers from the Charlesfort catastrophe.
"What does he say?"
"He says we are his brothers. His friends." The interpreter licked his lips. "He says you are brother to Soleil, the sun-god, sent to defeat his enemies."
Le Moyne nearly gasped — such idolatry. But Laudonnière stood unfazed, cradling the ingot of silver closer against his heart. He nodded, as if speaking the pillar's meaning.
"Camarades. Frères. Yes, tell him that."
* * *
They have come north since then, looking for a river deep enough to accommodate their fleet. Today it seems they have found it, sailing upstream into this unknown land. Le Moyne squints through the failing light. The sun is down, the river like polished black marble. It is the hour between the dog and the wolf, when the world grows smoky with night falling, when you cannot tell whether the beast from the woods is friend to you or enemy. Le Moyne sighs and closes his notebook on the tower of cypress he has been sketching. Beneath it, just visible, the ghostly outline of pillar and chief.
A cry goes up from the bow, now others, and men race toward the foredeck. Le Moyne dashes among them, elbowing his way to the rail. He looks past the bowsprit, seeing the reason for their cries, and the stick of charcoal slips from his hand, crushed underfoot as he staggers back from the sight.
"Serpent de mer!" cry the men.
It is thrice-humped from the water, this monster, its spine armored like the giant lizards that sun themselves on the riverbanks. But it makes newt of such creatures, a serpent the size of a cypress tree mounding its way through the water, a string of stony dark islands. For long seconds the creature swims upriver before their bow, as if leading them, only to slide beneath the surface, swallowed in black glass.
Le Moyne can hardly breathe. His heart sounds wildly against his ribs. He has been tasked on this journey to fill the white spaces on the map, the places that warn of dragons, and now it seems he must fill those oceans of white with blacker terrors still.CHAPTER 3
Altamaha River, Day 1
The brothers round a bend and the Rayonier pulp mill rises smoking on the bank, a towering industrial fortress of silos and catwalks and smokestacks whose upper rims blink all hours to warn away low-flying aircraft. Long convoys of logging trucks deliver forty-ton quivers of slash pine day and night, the arrow-straight trees chipped and fed into steel digesters the size of space rockets. The mill produces bleached cellulose fibers used in cigarette filters and diapers. Bark and sawdust are burned for power, the smokestacks launching endless fleets of yellow-edged clouds. The plant's wastewater rumbles into the river just downstream, the current foaming cauldronlike where the discharge pipes empty out, a mysterious black effluent that stains the river for miles on. People say the river used to be green, the bars white as flour.
Lawton's nose twitches in the red profusion of his beard.
"Smell never gets no better."
It smells like rotten eggs, or cabbage. An odor common in this part of the state, emitted by the pulp and paper mills sprung like mean little cities from the pines.
Hunter spits. "You just ain't used to it no more. Been sniffing officers' asses too long. I can't even hardly smell it."
Lawton arches an eyebrow. "The hell you can't."
Excerpted from The River of Kings by Taylor Brown. Copyright © 2017 Taylor Brown. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Altamaha River, Day 1,
2. New France, June 1564,
3. Altamaha River, Day 1,
4. Sapelo Sound, March 1975,
5. Altamaha River, Day 1,
6. Fort Caroline, 1564,
7. Darien, Georgia, 1975,
8. Altamaha River, Day 1,
9. Fort Caroline, 1564,
10. Altamaha River, 1975,
11. Altamaha River, Day 1,
12. Fort Caroline, August 1564,
13. Altamaha River, Day 1,
14. Darien, Georgia, 1982,
15. Fort Caroline, August 1564,
16. Altamaha River, Day 2,
17. Fort Caroline, August 1564,
18. Darien, Georgia, 1987,
19. Miller Lake, Day 2,
20. Fort Caroline, November 1564,
21. Altamaha River, Day 2,
22. Fort Caroline, November 1564,
23. Sapelo Sound, Georgia, 1992,
24. Altamaha River, Day 2,
25. Fort Caroline, November 1564,
26. Altamaha River, Day 3,
27. New France, February 1565,
28. Darien, Georgia, 1993,
29. Altamaha River, Day 3,
30. New France, March 1565,
31. Crooked Lake, Day 3,
32. New France, March 1565,
33. Crooked Lake, Day 3,
34. Darien, Georgia, 1993,
35. Fort Caroline, March 1565,
36. Altamaha River, Day 3,
37. Fort Caroline, March 1565,
38. Altamaha River, Day 3,
39. Fort Caroline, April 1565,
40. Altamaha River, Day 4,
41. Altamaha River, 1996,
42. Fort Caroline, May 1565,
43. Altamaha River, Day 4,
44. Fort Caroline, May 1565,
45. Altamaha River, 1996,
46. Altamaha River, Day 4,
47. New France, June 1565,
48. Altamaha River, 1996,
49. Altamaha River, Day 4,
50. Fort Caroline, July 1565,
51. Lewis Island, Day 4,
52. Altamaha River, 2001,
53. Fort Caroline, July 1565,
54. Altamaha River, Day 5,
55. Fort Caroline, August 1565,
56. Altamaha River, Day 5,
57. Fort Caroline, September 1565,
58. Altamaha River, Day 5,
59. McIntosh County, 2001,
60. Altamaha River, Day 5,
61. Fort Caroline, September 1565,
62. Altamaha River, Day 5,
63. New France, September 1565,
64. Altamaha River, Day 5,
Also by Taylor Brown,
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