Tuesday 16 July 2013

Book Review | River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

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.


Legends are not born, but made. Not fated, but carefully—or carelessly—shaped.

A lesson for the ages, there, but not one that every scholar takes to heart.
"Is it possible... can a man be born into the world to be something, for something?" 
"Yes," said the old man. "But even if he is, it doesn't always happen. Too much can intervene. The world does what it does, under heaven. Our dreams, our certainties, crash into each other." 
"Like swords?" Daiyan said. 
The old man shrugged. "Like swords, like ambitions at court." 
A silence. (pp.359-360)
Despite this oft-voiced thought, Ren Daiyan has felt possessed by something resembling destiny from an early age. As a boy of fifteen scant summers at the outset of Guy Gavriel Kay's sublime new novel, he is asked to help protect the sub-prefect on an investigative mission through treacherous territory. Thrilled by the prospect of "keeping order for the emperor" (p.16) in some small way, he accepts the request.

Bandits fall upon the caravan in short order. Surprising everyone except himself, Daiyan single-handedly slaughters them all. "What followed on that lonely path between forest and cliffs felt destined, necessary, not truly a matter of choosing. It was more as if the choice had been made for him, he was only the agency of its working." (p.23) Soon, he is revered as a local hero—and the legend of his life which River of Stars examines has begun.

It is a dark time for the empire under heaven, however, regardless of Daiyan's grand designs:
The Silk Roads through the deserts were lost, cut off by barbarians. 
No western treasures flowed to Kitai now, to the trading cities or the court in Hanjin. No legendary green-eyed, yellow-haired dancing girls bringing seductive music. No jade and ivory or exotic fruits, no wealth of silver coins brought by merchants to buy longed-for Kitan silk and carry it back west on camels through the sands. 
This Twelfth Dynasty of Kitai under their radiant and glorious emperor did not rule and define the known world. Not any more. (p.8)
Indeed, this is an empire diminished in every which way, which is to say from within its more modest borders as well as outwith. Unrest is on the rise: peasant rebellions and political protests are now par for the course. The great walls which once encompassed Kitai have crumbled. In turn, the glittering court has been humbled. And all the while, barbarians beat at the gates.

Though Daiyan is "serenely convinced" (p.246) that he will one day regain the fabled Fourteen—namely the outermost prefectures lost to the empire long ago—if Kitai is to survive, never mind thrive, its future will be fashioned by other hands than his.

Other hands... such as Lin Shan's. The only daughter of the court gentleman Lin Kuo, she has been educated, against all the guidance of the time, much as a male child might be:
She wasn't, of course, going to write any examinations, or wear robes with the belt of any rank at all, but her father had given her the learning to do so. And he had made her perfect her writing skills and the brush strokes of her calligraphy. 
The songs, the ci, she had discovered on her own. (p.45)
Shan comes to consider her unique upbringing a boon, however I fear few others do. As she puts it, "men tend to be made uneasy, or sometimes amused, by [her intelligence]," (ibid) while women outright dislike her. Yet she is a self-sufficient girl at the outset, and her determination develops with each subsequent summer. She comes of age quickly, and is promptly married off. But she does not simply submit to her husband. Instead, they become friends... equals, even—at least until the emperor himself takes an interest in Shan and her songs.

These events certainly factor in to who she is, but their impact is underpinned by her unwavering sense of self. To wit, though she does not know what to make of the emperor's fascination in the first, she is certain not to become some pretty pet or accessory. In her way, if I may, Shan proves as pivotal to Kitai as Daiyan dreams of being—albeit in a roundabout manner returning readers are likely to find familiar.
No real poet would claim originality for an image of streams becoming rivers over distance and time: how even those that can destroy farmlands with their flooding, or thunder through gorges and over falls, begin as rivulets in the rocks of mountains, or underground waters that find the surface and being to flow across the land to find the sea. 
Nor could the idea that rivers come together to make a single force be asserted as distinctive. The test is always in the words—and the brush strokes shaping them. There are only so many ideas, so many patterns in the world. (p.147)
That Guy Gavriel Kay has the confidence to acknowledge this is testament to his inimitable vision and ability, I think. After all, River of Stars does describe a rather archetypal pattern, especially as regards the author's own body of work. Themes and thoughts he has explored before reappear with some frequency. His protagonists occasionally behave in unsurprising ways, recalling heroes and stories of yore.

But don't dare be dismayed, because these things are only as similar, in this iteration, as they are different. The quarter turn the author often talks about also returns, and in River of Stars it applies to narrative and character as well as questions of setting. Here, you see, some rivulets become rivers, but others simply trickle, or dry up entirely. Great tales in the making are regularly interrupted, whilst a number of dreams come to nothing. As Kay contends:
Small events can be important in the unfolding, like a pleated sail, of the world. The survival of an emissary, say, or his drowning on a ship in a sudden summer thunderstorm. 
But sometimes such moments do not signify in the sweep and flow of events, though obviously they will matter greatly to those who might have thought their lives were ending in rain and wins, and for those who love them dearly and would have grieved for their loss. (p.313)
This, too, is an idea the award-winning author has put in the past—in The Last Light of the Sun, for one—but here he voices it so often, and so powerfully, that it is more than an incidental omen. It is a warning that the reader cannot but take to heart; a statement instead of a suggestion. Therefore a sense of terrible dread demarcates the redoubtable delights we have come to expect from Kay's fantastic fiction, gathering in force and scope as it goes.

In short, certain elements must be expected in order for the unexpected to be effective, and in River of Stars, it is.

Or is it?

I'm sorry. Sometimes I can't help myself. River of Stars really does pack a punch, in large part because of the way Kay plays with our expectations, engineering difference and originality out of our expectations of his characters and narratives—and the same can be asserted of the text's refreshed setting.

If the truth be told, few things in life get me quite as excited as the prospect of a new novel from this master craftsman. Nevertheless, I know I was not alone in wishing—when we first heard that River of Stars would return to the empire investigated in Under Heaven—that the author had channelled his inimitable imagination into a wonderful new world rather than returning to Kitai.

To all those who worried with me: rest easy. Centuries have passed since the Tagurans gifted Shen Tai with two hundred and fifty gorgeous horses, cursing him with kindness in the process, and time has absolutely ravaged Kitai. What once shimmered like a jewel in moonlight has not utterly dulled, but must of its lustre is, alas, lost—its glory is gone, sacrificed alongside a large expanse of land. Here's how Daiyan's embittered instructor phrases this change:
The spring tea harvest had been dismal, desperate, and the fields for rice and vegetables were far too dry. This autumn's crops had been frighteningly sparse. There hadn't been any tax relief, either. The emperor needed money, there was a war. Teacher Tuan had things to say about that, too, sometimes reckless things. 
He'd told them that Xinan, the capital of glorious dynasties, had held two million people once, and that only a hundred thousand or so lived there now, scattered among rubble. He'd said that Tagur, to the west of them here, across the passes, had been a rival empire long ago, fierce and dangerous, with magnificent horses, and that it was now only a cluster of scrabbling provinces and fortified religious retreats. (p.4)
Ultimaltey, Twelfth Dynasty Kitai is so very different from the empire Under Heaven's readers will remember that it proves almost as satisfying as an entirely new milieu—and what little we do lose in lieu of another culture in place of Kay's impeccable portrayal of ancient China, we gain elsewhere, given how resonant River of Stars is with affectionate connections to its predecessor.

To be completely clear: you most certainly don't have to have read Under Heaven to appreciate Kay's latest—in fact, I can't imagine anyone coming away from this dazzling display feeling less than elated—but poignant nods to the characters, concerns and consequences of his masterful last fantasy make the return trip to Kitai that much more fulfilling.

It may be that you think you know what River of Stars is. You don't, though. As samey as I can see it seeming in some ways, rest assured that its every dimension is distinct in some sense. I suppose it hones closer to the author's other novels than Under Heaven—an outright exception to the pattern he has established over the years, and a revelation in its quiet way—but River of Stars is no less enthralling for its passing familiarity... which Kay plays into marvellously in any event.

I got just what I wanted out of River of Stars, and I wanted an awful lot. I wanted fundamentally memorable and delicately developed characters, a massively ambitious narrative, an exquisitely rendered setting, and prose so finely honed that it has all the impact of fine art. These are just a few of the things I've come to expect from Guy Gavriel Kay over the years, and he does not disappoint here.

Far from it. Kay on a bad day remains many times more absorbing than the vast majority of other genre authors, and I dare say River of Stars chronicles him on a great day. This is stunning stuff from one of fantasy fiction's finest. From one of fiction's finest, frankly.


River of Stars
by Guy Gavriel Kay

UK Publication: July 2013, HarperFiction
US Publication: April 2013, Roc

Buy this book from
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Or get the Kindle edition

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  1. Very well said. A great book, and a more than worthy successor to Under Heaven. That one set the bar so high, I didn't think he could do it again, but I love the way the two books play off each other as a duology.

  2. I don't pretend to be a Chinese scholar, but from what I have read and seen of Chinese art, Kay has done a masterful job of capturing. This is a very enjoyable book.

  3. I'll admit I'm a fan of Kay's work since his initial trilogy. He is on my "short list", the one every reader has, of authors whose work will be purchased no matter what. And when I heard that this novel was a follow-up to one of my favorites of his, Under Heaven, I pre-ordered it as soon as it appeared.