I recently finished Dark Designs, the next Riverworld novel. Of the three I’ve read thus far, this one is far and away the best – primarily because it keeps things moving in the middle. There’s a lot going on in this book, and while there are certainly spoilers below, I’ll be looking at it more in broad strokes.
First, I think this book begins to deviate from the other books in the series in that it makes the transition from a setting-driven book to a character driven book, and I think this is what makes the middle work. Here, the middle is about what the characters are doing to change their lot, rather than filling in details about the setting. While I certainly find the setting interesting, I think the actions of the characters made for better story.
Another thing that made this book work for me, was the introduction of some likable characters. I have to admit, that Richard Burton doesn’t really do much for me as a protagonist, and while Samuel Clemens was better, I still didn’t find him relatable. In this book though, I finally felt like there were protagonists that I found I liked. Peter Jarius Frigate is a pretty cool character, and, even if he is a Philip Jose Farmer insert, has some pretty cool character beats and provides the right amount of light-heartedness to his sections. I also really liked Piscator – I often felt like these books have been missing a wise and measured character, and Piscator filled that role so well, that I really liked reading his sections whenever they came up.
Finally, I felt like this book did more for the big-picture storyline than the others have. The intrigue elements and the consistent move toward the pole made the story feel like it was moving toward something. On the other hand, this book does kind of leave the reader hanging; it ends on a cliff-hanger, which made if fell more like a part of a series, and less like a complete arc. This doesn’t bother me so much (I’ve liked stories that do either), but having just read The Demonwars Trilogy, it stands out as a different style.
Overall, I would say the payoff in Dark Designs is well worth reading through To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Magnificent Riverboat. Seeing much of the setting material introduced in the first two books start to fall into place, really makes this book seem much more alive than it would by itself.