Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.
Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.
In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars.
Guy Gavriel Kay is an author whose writing I admire immensely, but whose work I’ve only read sparsely. To be exact, only twice, A Song for Arbonne and Tigana, the latter I’ve only listened too and to me that is a completely different experience, so perhaps that one doesn’t even count. I did read rave reviews for Kay’s previous release, Under Heaven, and the book is still on my humongous ‘If I win the lottery, these are the books I’ll buy list’. So when I was approached about reviewing it I was really stoked. But I was also intrigued, because in the UK HarperCollins chose to publish the book under their general fiction imprint rather than their speculative fiction imprint HarperVoyager, while in the US the book was published by Penguin under their Roc imprint, which is one of their SFF imprints. Since as far as I was aware, Kay is a tried and true fantasy author, I was wondering whether this clear bid to introduce the author to a mainstream audience would work with this book. In other words, what would the balance between fantasy and historical fiction be? It was an interesting question to pose myself during the reading of this book and after finishing the book, I have to admit, that I read the book more as a work of historical fiction than as a work of fantasy. There are fantasy elements to the tale – the world of the Kitai can’t be transposed one-to-one on that of the Chinese Empire, it was inspired by, not a retelling of that world; there are ghosts, fox-spirits, and fortune-telling shamans – but other than the setting these can be chalked up to the superstitions of the time. While clearly a historical fantasy, River of Stars could easily be classified as a magic realist work. But genre-classifying aside, what matters is the story and the writing and both of these were glorious.
River of Stars is a stunning look at the fall of one imperial dynasty and the birth of the next. It’s also a story about the creation of legend and how legend is built both from historical truth and lots of embellishment. The narrative follows a wide array of characters, told from multiple points of view in differing tenses, though the main points of view and the lead characters of the book are Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan. They are both outliers in their time. Ren is a gifted young man, who might even be able to pass the examinations and become a civil servant and thus set for life. However, he feels a different calling; he dreams of becoming a great warrior, of restoring Kitai to its former glory and returning its lost provinces. In Kitai society this is unthinkable, the way of the warrior is only for peasants and not held in high esteem, yet Ren has to follow his heart. Similarly, society considers Shan an anomaly as well. She’s a well-educated and talented woman in a time were women are pushed more and more into a subservient, ornamental role. Thus she’s seen as unwomanly and somewhat shunned. Despite this, Shan rises to win the emperor’s favour for her poetry and so gains not just a measure of protection, but at the same time is firmly placed in the cross hairs of scheming politicians.
Lin Shan’s character is a direct challenge of the position of women in Twelfth Dynasty Kitai. Kay shows us how this regression came about and how difficult Lin Shan’s struggle to find herself a place was and how important her being there was, so she could be an example to other, later generations. Both the reason for the way women are disenfranchised and that for the way the army is undermined and has its teeth pulled are due to Kitai’s stubborn clinging to its history and its fears from the past. A female regent was blamed for the downfall of a dynasty, so let’s keep all women away from power forever, in case they do it again. Similarly, an emperor was overthrown by an ambitious army? Then let’s keep said army understrength and run by incompetent yes-men, so they’ll never think to do it again. It’s an interesting parallel and it shows how a society can become mired in moribundity by its own history.
While a story of conquest and war, I found the most exciting and breath taking battles the ones that were only joined with words. One of the most memorable of these scenes was the scene in the Genyue, the emperor’s park-like garden, with the confrontation between the emperor, Kai Zhen and Hang Dejin. Politics is a cutthroat business in Kitai and the way Kay mixes overt dialogue with the unspoken creates tension that can be cut by a knife. There are quite a lot of these verbal sparring matches, in fact Kitai society – and Kay – seem to delight in them.
The writing is glorious. Kay is a wordsmith of the highest order and at times his prose took my breath away. It was immersive and poetic, quite fitting for a story that is partly told from the point of view of a poet and which is set in a culture that prizes words, calligraphy and art most highly. The plot unfolds slowly and especially in the early parts the true scope and direction are a little obfuscated, but once you are immersed in the story, it all becomes clear and the narrative is quite compelling.
River of Stars is a gorgeous tale. Kay’s previous book Under Heaven, is set in the same world, but in no way is it necessary to have read that book to enjoy River of Stars. Reading it has re-enforced my impression of Kay’s mastery of historical fantasy and I think I need to add his entire backlist to my ‘Christmas/Birthday/Other occasions’-list, because waiting for the off-chance of winning the lottery just won’t do anymore. If you’re a fan of historical fiction or fantasy, this book has plenty to offer for both. Be warned, at 639 pages, the book is a Chihuahua killer, so if you need to spare your wrists, I’d spring for the eBook. But whether you read it on paper or in pixels, it’ll be a fantastic read either way.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.