Starry River of the Sky: A quiet gem of a novel

Starry River of the Sky by Grace LinStarry River of the Sky by Grace Lin

Starry River of the Sky, by Grace Lin, is a thoughtful, delightful tale, a quiet little story of awakening and forgiveness that would not only be a great on-its-own book for middle-grade and YA, but would also make a wonderful read-aloud thanks to the folktales at its core. And while it’s definitely aimed at that younger group, don’t assume that means a lack of maturity, for Lin displays a sophisticated sense of both style and structure here.

Our first line, “Rendi was not sure how long the moon had been missing,” introduces us both to the main character as well as to the folktale world we’ll be moving through. We meet Rendi, an angry young stowaway in a wine merchant’s wagon, just as he is discovered and left behind by the angry merchant at the inn of the tiny village of Clear Sky, on the edge of a barren, desolate flatland known as the Stone Pancake.

Hired by Innkeeper Chao as a chore boy, Rendi grudgingly becomes part of the everday life of the inn, forced to daily interact with the innkeeper’s daughter, Peiyi; the mysterious Madame Chang, who shows up out of the blue soon after Rendi’s own arrival; Mr Shan, the old man who eats at the inn every day and who has seemingly lost much of his sense; and Widow Yan, the innkeeper’s longtime neighbor and one-half of their running feud.

Still other characters arrive via the folktales interspersed throughout the novel, beginning with Peiyi’s tale of how the Stone Pancake came to be and what happened to the mountain that once stood there. As the characters tell their stories, we meet the great hero WangYi, his perhaps even greater wife, the Sage of the Mountain, Magistrate Tiger, The Lady in the Moon, and others.

At first, the stories may seem to interrupt the narrative. They may even frustrate the reader a bit, as Starry River of the Sky contains a number of riddles to be solved: who is Rendi and why is he running/hiding? What has happened to Peiyi’s brother? Why are Innkeeper Chao and Widow Yan always fighting? What has happened to Mr. Shan? Who is this enigmatic and beautiful Madame Chang? And of course, what has happened to the moon?

But if at first the stories, despite their wonderfully voiced tone and style, seem all too separate from the main narrative, soon the reader (and even one or two of the characters) begins to realize that they are in fact deeply connected. The stories sometimes lead one into the other, sometimes double-back on themselves, commenting on each other and even sometimes reversing themselves completely. And as we hear them, we start to notice what they reveal of the storyteller and/or of the listeners and begin to see how the stories begin to reach into the “real” world Rendi inhabits.

Eventually, what seemed at first a series of discrete tales resolves themselves into a tightly woven tapestry, one threaded with evocative symbols and bittersweet emotions and creating a picture of sophisticated wisdom simply told. Though perhaps a tapestry isn’t the best analogue, as one of the book’s themes is change; after all, even the Starry River of the Sky changes: the moon waxes and wanes, the sun rises and sets, the starts change overhead. And so people too can learn to change, must grow, even if such growth sometimes brings sadness. So if it’s a tapestry, let’s say an unfinished one, though still quietly, beautifully moving despite or perhaps because of its being unfinished.

Lin’s voice, a sort of lyrical simplicity, wonderfully matches the slow pace and quietly charming nature of the story. And the exact same phrasing could be used to describe her illustrations, especially the bright little full-color gems that pepper the novel.

Starry River of the Sky is itself a gem: carefully constructed and crafted, not a page too long, with a just-right ending, language and pictures wonderfully matched to characters and story, and an author wholly in control from start to finish. Just a lovely read and highly recommended.

The moon is missing from the remote Village of Clear Sky, but only a young boy named Rendi seems to notice! Rendi has run away from home and is now working as a chore boy at the village inn. He can’t help but notice the village’s peculiar inhabitants and their problems-where has the innkeeper’s son gone? Why are Master Chao and Widow Yan always arguing? What is the crying sound Rendi keeps hearing? And how can crazy, old Mr. Shan not know if his pet is a toad or a rabbit? But one day, a mysterious lady arrives at the Inn with the gift of storytelling, and slowly transforms the villagers and Rendi himself. As she tells more stories and the days pass in the Village of Clear Sky, Rendi begins to realize that perhaps it is his own story that holds the answers to all those questions. Newbery Honor author Grace Lin brings readers another enthralling fantasy featuring her marvelous full-color illustrations. Starry River of the Sky is filled with Chinese folklore, fascinating characters, and exciting new adventures.

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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

One comment

  1. This looks interesting. I will have to add it to the growing list of books to be read.

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