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.