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. Continue reading