River of Stars

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Cover image

Publisher: Roc
Copyright: April 2013
ISBN: 0-451-46497-4
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 639

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In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay applied his style of slightly fantastic alternate history to Tang Dynasty China and wrote possibly the best book of his career. In River of Stars, he takes the unusual step of revisiting one of his historical worlds, something I don't think he's done explicitly apart from the Sarantime Mosaic duology. River of Stars is set in the same land of Kitai, Kay's alternate China, four centuries later. It's a stand-alone novel, not a sequel, but the effects of the events of the earlier book are deeply felt on the structure of society.

Under Heaven was one of my favorite books of all time, so you can imagine how eagerly I've been awaiting this book ever since it was announced. It starts, once again, in the distant regions of Kitai, this time with a boy. Ren Daiyan is the second son of a minor clerk in a backwater town with a very atypical dream for someone of his social rank: to win back the lost provinces of Kitai from the Xiaolu and restore the glory of the empire as the center of the world. One sees little hope for this dream in a world where no one with any choice in the matter would let their sons join the discredited and suspected army. And, as River of Stars opens, it's become much less likely since the town's only teacher has closed his school and left.

As with Under Heaven, the unfolding of Daiyan's life is full of surprises, all of which should be enjoyed in the flow of the story. Here, I think the cover flap even gives away too much information, despite only mentioning events at the start of the book, since the incident that it recounts has much more impact without being spoiled. I recommend avoiding any plot summary and just reading, and therefore will avoid giving any more details.

River of Stars, in another echo of its predecessor novel, has a second, female protagonist. Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar on the edges of imperial court life, a man who has quietly but persistently refused to educate her differently than he would have educated a son. This matters in the time of this novel. Kitai has turned more conservative, turned away from the roles of women in public life seen (in their limited ways) in Under Heaven, and has pressed women into new roles of formal modesty. Shan has been set up for a difficult life. But she's also brilliant, careful, and canny, making use of opportunties, and manages to make several extraordinary friends within the power structures of the court.

It's impossible not to compare this novel to Under Heaven, but that's an unfair standard to which to hold any novel. So I will say up front that, at least for me, River of Stars does not capture quite the same magic. Shen Tai was a brilliant protagonist, and his unwanted journey into the circles of power was the perfect palette on which to mix personal integrity with sweeping politics. It used history as a backdrop for a novel that was always grounded in Shen Tai's modest ambitions and quiet integrity. Neither Daiyan nor Shen are that character, nor is River of Stars that book. This novel is far more political from the start, concerned directly with issues of governance, court intrigue, and military maneuvers. Even with Shen to ground the story, the personal is the political and the events of history have been moved to center stage.

I've seen Kay approach a history both ways, and I prefer when he uses history as backdrop rather than focus. I find it easier to identify and celebrate with the protagonists when their journies are less caught up in grand events. When, as here, the personal becomes the political, it creates a darker tone. The stakes are higher, and there is little separable individual triumph to blunt the tragic moments.

That said, Kay remains at the height of his form. Once again, this novel contains some of the best conversations I have ever read. I'm not sure what Kay is doing that other novelists aren't. It may be that he is discarding some realism in favor of presenting the purified essence of sharp and dangerous exchanges (more on that in a bit). But there are several conversations here that read like the distilled essence of a high-stakes, insightful exchange between fearsomely intelligent adversaries: steeped in strategy, carefully managed for effect, and full of thrilling rhetorical tightropes. There are also moments that literally sent shivers up my spine: moments when the story changes, and lives change, in ways that I was not expecting at all. The story is beautifully stage-managed, imbuing every moment with a feeling of a broader resonance.

I do have to warn, as with all Kay but particularly recent writing, that this is done openly and explicitly via an omniscient and very obvious narrative voice. Kay writes in the style of high fantasy in which the narrator is nearly a character in the story, one who foreshadows events and shares observations directly with the reader. Some people dislike that style inherently, and if so, Kay may not be for you. I love it when it's done well, and I don't think anyone does it better than Kay. I feel like I'm in the hands of a master storyteller who is carefully crafting the story to preserve surprise and suspense and who knows exactly where he wants the story to go.

That's fitting, since one of the major themes of this book is stories and legends, and how they are shaped by events but then come to shape events in turn. River of Stars is partly about the construction of stories in the way that Under Heaven was partly about poetry. Some of the characters try to control the setting and subject matter, some use stories as a way to focus their personal motivation, and some use them to define their lives. But stories also shape politics because they can define popular reaction and the limits of the possible. This theme is subtle through much of the book, but the more I thought about it the more I noticed it woven through the story.

Unfortunately, and very unusually for one of Kay's novels, the journey was intense but the destination was mildly unsatisfying. I don't want to give away any detail of the plot, so this is necessarily vague, but while I intellectually appreciate the themes that I think Kay was exploring, I think River of Stars lacks the powerful catharsis that I normally get from his novels. This for me returns to the focus on the politics over the personal (which is in some ways another of the themes of the novel). The catharsis in a novel for me begins and ends with the characters, and these characters didn't have quite enough independence from the broader sweep of events.

Another theme of the novel is the degree to which every character is operating within tight constraints. This also showed up in Under Heaven, but Under Heaven was full of characters who subverted and manipulated those constraints. In River of Stars, they are more often suffocating. Shen is my favorite character, and I think the strongest character in the novel, because she manages to work around the most constraints and has the most personal story. But the roles into which she's forced remain smothering and push her out of the center of the action. Her life is full of lovely details (I particularly liked her domestic situation, which shows a family model that I think was far more common in reality than it has been in fiction and one that I would like to see portrayed far more often), but she simply doesn't have realistic room, within the society portrayed here, to maneuver to the catharsis I was looking for.

One other, minor note: as in Tigana, but more blatantly, unusual sexual desires make an appearance linked with the closest thing this story has to a villain. (In this case, femdom BDSM, although shown so glancingly that I suspect some readers will not pick up on what's being described.) It was neither unrealistic nor out of character, but there is a moment of nastiness that caught me by surprise and bothered me. I hope eventually to see alternative sexuality show up in a Kay novel without the negative linkages. It's not quite characterization by stereotype (I think Kay was going for a deeper point about the constrained roles available to women), but it's close enough to not work for me.

I'm spending a lot of words on what didn't quite work for me, but that's because it's complex to explain, not because this is a bad story. Rather the opposite: it's an excellent novel that I didn't enjoy quite as much as its predecessor for reasons that are very individual to me. It's quite likely that those with different narrative preferences or different tolerances for certain emotional tones in novels will have a far different reaction. The quality of the writing is quite high, provided that you don't mind Kay's intrusive narrator, and several moments in this novel made me catch my breath in wonder.

If you like Kay, read this; it's very much worth your time. If you're new to Kay, I would start with Under Heaven, which is near the top of my list of novels to recommend to anyone. Then read this, since seeing how the world develops and how the events of the previous novel change and shape subsequent politics is fascinating. It's not quite at the same level, but it's very much worth reading on its own terms.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-06-25

Last modified and spun 2016-10-01