River of Stars: A beautifully crafted, moving novel

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay fantasy book reviewsRiver of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Since this is a fantasy review site, let’s get this out nice and early. Outside of its setting — a fictionalized and truncated version of China’ s 11th century Northern Song Dynasty — there is next to no fantasy in River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay’s newest work. A few ghosts, an occasional fox-woman, and that’s it. So fantasy readers will have to take those few bones tossed their way and then settle for graceful, lyrical prose, beautifully drawn characters, moments that stab the heart, a masterful sense of structure and pace, and an overall elegance and skill that denotes a novelist in complete control of his creation. Oh, the things we put up with.

The storyline is roughly that of the aforementioned period in China’s history. The Kitai Empire, reacting to long-ago rebellions by army commanders against the royal court, has allowed its armies to grow weak and its commanders incompetent, leaving them open to the predations of the northern nomadic tribes when they come sweeping down. Caught up events are a number of major characters, including: Ren Daiyan, a young man whom we watch grow into a fine military mind; Lin Shan, a young woman given a boy’s education by her idiosyncratic father; Lu Chen, an exiled poet; and Hang Dejin and Kai Zhen, dueling prime ministers to the Emperor.

As mentioned, River of Stars is not really much of a “fantasy” outside the manner in which Kay has taken historical events and people and put his own stamp on them — what they do, say, think. His “history,” in other words, is the fantasy, barring maybe a few scattered paragraphs. Kay being such an important figure in fantasy, though, I don’t see anything wrong with reviewing his novels, even if they lack the usual fantasy elements. It doesn’t hurt that River of Stars is so damn good.

There really isn’t a weak spot in the book, though I can see how it might not be everyone’s cup of Jade Mountain Green Tea. Some might balk at its 600+ pages or find it moves too slowly. Others might wish for more or more fully detailed “action” scenes. Some I suppose, those well versed in their ancient Chinese history, might even complain it’s “predictable,” following the general course of that history, not to mention the general course of imperial dynastic courts or any human power structure, in the sense that you can see where things are going in terms of the big picture (Newsflash: Chinese dynasties rise and fall, be careful of messing with nomadic horsemen of the steppes, etc., etc.). But I’ve never subscribed to the idea that “knowing what happens” matters much to the impact of a story, nor does hewing even much more faithfully than Mr. Kay does here to historically accurate events/characters diminish the capacity of good fiction to move, to startle, to create wonder and fear in the mind of the reader. And from my perspective, this was easily one of the best reads I’ve had in the past few months.

Endlessly graceful, perfectly attuned to time and place and character and mood, never a line out of place; the prose in River of Stars is beautifully crafted at the sentence level: lyrical, but in a muted fashion, beautiful but not clamoring for attention, and often bearing the burden of sorrow:

But the boy was killed in a moonless summer dark under stars and wisps of cloud, and certain futures ended with him, just as others opened up because he died. This happens all the time. It is why men pray to their gods.

 

There were peonies in Yenling when spring came, even in that year. Flowers grow, whether or not men and women are able to celebrate them, wear them in their hair.

 

There is only so much a woman can do to help her children through the hard, dark spinning sorrows of time and the world.

The characters are vividly drawn and compelling in their own right as well as in their relationships one to the other, whether they be tied together by love, by loyalty, by marriage, by the bonds between parent and child or brother and brother, by the oaths between Emperor and servant. Kay takes his time developing these characters and their relationships and over the course of those 600 pages you come to care deeply about what happens to each of them. Perhaps more impressively, you also come to care about what happens to those characters you meet for only a few pages or less, such as that young boy above killed on the moonless night.

The novel mostly moves forward in linear fashion, but interrupted now and then by flash forwards, as when Kay gives us a glimpse of one character’s future:

Zhi-li will never marry, never leave their village. She goes to serve in the temple of the Sacred path not long after that night of power, when late-season fireflies had gathered . . .

Kay also interrupts periodically with running themes dealing with how history will look back on events and how writers construct their tales:

The line between history and storytelling isn’t always easy to draw.

 

But sometimes storytellers want to inhabit certainty. They assume more than mortals ought . . . will deceive himself into believing he has the otherworldly knowledge of a fox spirit, a ghost, a god.

This narrative voice slides in smoothly and easily into the spaces between plot movement, adding a nice layer of depth to a novel already filled with it thanks to characters who think, out loud and to themselves, about big events, about time and history, about the measure of men and women, about art and death and beauty. River of Stars is a beautifully crafted, moving novel and one I can’t recommend highly enough.

River of Stars — (2013) Publisher: In his critically acclaimed novel Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay told a vivid and powerful story inspired by China’s Tang Dynasty. Now, the international bestselling and multiple award-winning author revisits that invented setting four centuries later with an epic of prideful emperors, battling courtiers, bandits and soldiers, nomadic invasions, and a woman battling in her own way, to find a new place for women in the world — a world inspired this time by the glittering, decadent Song Dynasty. 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.

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BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

2 comments

  1. Someone in my writers group is working on an historical novel about China, set in the 13th century. This is a country whose history I am largely ignorant of, and it seems fascinating. Bill, thank you for this review. River of Stars fits right in; I will have to go order it.

  2. I’m reading this right now and really liking it so far. Great review!

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