River of Stars is the newest novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, an author hardly in need of an introduction. The Canadian writer became known with The Fionavar Tapestry, a successful Fantasy debut trilogy (a read that I abandoned when I had little tolerance for real world connections to Fantasy stories...). For his last books, he started writing Fantasy based on real world settings and events, alternate history Fantasy. This is my first taste of his work in a long time and as I should have guessed, it ought to have stood a shorter time on my shame list.
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.
River of Stars is a tale of remembrance. The remembrance of a legend and how it was shaped. It's the re-enacting of important days and events in an era of China's Northern Song Dynasty and the paths that are taken, that could have been taken to shape that legend, a free interpretation of the mindset of the people who were part of it. Moreover, at the heart of that legend are some unlikely heroes, who, when they are stripped to the bone, may seem like common tropes for the shaping of myths, but ultimately stand as one of the purest form of protagonists worth writing about.
The two main characters, Ren Daiyan (roguish, by Kitan standard, wannabe savior) and Lin Shan (a woman living in the wrong era with men ambitions) both have very different role to play in the overall power struggle between the one glorious empire of Kitai and their barbarian neighbors, the Xiaolu. They settle along the circle of people surrounding the Emperor. For them, a love story will blossom and even if this is an important and well written part of the story, this is not the core of it. The path followed by Daiyan is a compelling story of successes and resignation, complemented with companions and adversaries with a sufficiently detailed background. But then, as the author puts it at the end of the second part of the book:
Everything to this point, this night, felt to him to have become a prelude, like notes played on a pipa to tune it, ensure it was ready for the song yet to come.
Indeed, the first third of the book actually feels like a prelude. By that time, the setting, which sometimes seemed as if it was more important part than the cast, save for the fact that it's rendered through them, was solidly defined. Characters like the Lu brothers introduced poetry, Lin father and the Emperor introduced gardening, Lin's husband archaeology and calligraphy made its way up front as a favorite art. Most of them look like very perceptive human beings crafting their way in a world set in tradition. Kay clearly did his homework to achieve cohesion with this while keeping the tale intriguing enough to retain interest. He's also often hinting at the future achievements of his heroes and antagonists, making the reader imagination flourish.
Even if Kay's characters are for the better part of the novel his main focus, there's a tale of opportunism, conquest and ambition as a backdrop. Some fighting occurs, raids and even larger scale battles are fought but in the end, it's the path taken by the individuals accessing to power which is scrutinized thoroughly The prime ministers and different factions trying through schemes and perseverance to command the Emperor's eye in a favorable way bring a deep political and philosophical imprint to the story.
As I mentioned, the world created, or re-created by Guy Gavriel Kay is an alternate version of the Song Dynasty era of China and Mongolia. I thought that this would make it easier for the author to immerse the reader into his world but with little touches here and there and clearly a lot of research behind the descriptions, it ended up as a vibrant and tangible world. Don't look out for much magic though...
The first element of Kay's writing that struck me is the fluid prose skillfully put to paper in a style easy to read and punctuated by an artistic phrasing. On the plus side, while I found the frequent use of parentheses to be annoying at first, simply because I'm not used to it, I thought that it was a great way to accentuate the feelings of the characters or to add precision to a situation. Still on the writing style, there was another aspect that I found unusual, the references to the future and the many insights into what happens to the characters in their future. River of Stars isn't a tale told in a present period with references to the past, it's a recounting of a turbulent period in a way reminiscent of a thesis on a part of history, brightened with an author's pen with a penchant toward introspection.
On the downside, I think that the 'time lapses' between the chapters make it harder to get our bearings when they start. There are also some pacing issues in River of Stars. The book isn't an exciting roller-coaster but each part is an arc leading to some climax but is always followed by slower rhythm with a lot of time for the characters to ponder.
River of Stars is bringing some of the High Fantasy in his Historic canvas. Not in term of huge battle scenes or heroic vanquishing of an evil overlord but in the sense that the quality of the work is greater than many of his fellow writers, in design, focus and plot for a story of epic proportion. It's not the funniest tale, it's not ruthless in term of page turning action but it's definitely a book worth picking up. A nice change in a period dominated by grimmer works.
I don't really have time to look into the real history of the Song Dynasty and even if I had, I don't think that I would do it to compare the versions. The Song Dynasty is a basis for Kay's story and even if it could be seen as less imaginative, the fact that it's a compelling story told in a deftly written way is enough to satisfy my curiosity. And the choices and fate of Ren Daiyan toward the end... awesome!
A last quote before I leave you, a nice little wink:
Some writers later, describing the events of that night and day, wrote that Wan'yen of the Altai had seen a spirit-dragon of the river and become afraid. Writers do that sort of thing. They like dragons in their tales.
Technically, I think that both the Viking edition cover and the UK art (the second one) are looking great. There's a rough map of Kitai and its surroundings (the work of Martin Springett) at the start of the book along with a dramatis personae and the paperback edition of the books stand at 630 pages.
River of Stars review rating :
Overall (not an average)
Guy Gavriel Kay's page
Guy Gavriel Kay's page