River of Stars is the third book I’ve read by Guy Gavriel Kay. I first saw this book on a store shelf in 2013 when it was released and I was enchanted by the beautiful cover, but passed it by and did not think of it again for several years. I later heard of Guy Gavriel Kay in connection with his work with Christopher Tolkien on The Silmarillion. (The Silmarillion is JRR Tolkien’s unfinished masterpiece; his son and Kay compiled a narrative from the professor’s notes and drafts and published it posthumously in 1977.) After learning this, I felt compelled to pick up some of Kay’s original work and see how I felt he compared to my favorite author. I first read The Lions of Al-Rassan. What struck me about the book was how the characters grew on me so slowly I hardly realized that I cared for them – until I found myself gripping the corners of the book in anticipation and crying at the heartbreaking finale.
In many of his books, Guy Gavriel Kay takes a significant historical event and recasts it in a fictional world to explore those characters and events with the freedom of fantasy. In River of Stars, he uses Song dynasty China, as seen through his fictional nation of Kitai. This is actually the second book Kay wrote that takes place in Kitai, although the first book, Under Heaven, occurs approximately 500 years prior to the events of this one. Initially, I felt River of Stars didn’t focus enough on consistently developing a main character and instead spent too much time on details of culture and history in a way that felt dull, but ultimately Kay swept me away with his ability to richly present deep, powerful emotion and human doubt better than any other writer I know.
The book opens with Ren Daiyan, a young boy in a rural province of Kitai, practicing sword play in a bamboo forest. He doesn’t know it, but he is about to become an outlaw and set out on a path that changes both his life and the empire. Kay’s writing is such that when I settled in to read, I could see the leaves falling around me, feel the mist in the air, and hear the muffled sounds of a distant town. Shortly after this opening, Kay switches the point of view and introduces Lin Shan – a girl whose unconventional father has decided to have her educated. Her boldness contrasted with the formal and precise culture around her makes her compelling to the famous poet Lu Chen… and to the reader. Likewise, Shan’s admiration of Lu Chen invites the reader to feel awe in his presence. From the beginning, I knew I wanted the unique personalities of Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan to meet and to see how they would either clash or harmonize.
Unfortunately, I had to wait about a third of the book for this to happen, because the next 9 or 10 chapters jumped around to various characters describing disagreements between tribe leaders on the steppe and intricacies of court politics right down to the calligraphy style chosen for writing letters. Nothing seemed to be happening, and I grew bored – even with the ghosts and plots and an exorcism that happen along the way – because all of it seemed to be going absolutely nowhere. I still don’t know the difference between the many steppe riders, and I still can’t keep track of everyone who was exiled from court and called back again for various reasons (although admittedly this may be my fault for trying to read while I was in bed, exhausted.) Eventually, Daiyan and Shan do meet, and although they part ways for a time, from there the story takes off.
I feel that Kay’s greatest strengths as a writer also have become recurring motifs across his works. His characters become swept up in a pivotal moment in history. It starts slowly – a whisper of incipient trouble here and there – until suddenly reader and characters alike are caught up in an immense war that fundamentally changes the world. There is no change without loss, and that loss is poignantly felt. Kay is a master at artfully impressing the gravity of a single moment in time. It may be the execution of a beloved empress, the meeting of two men destined for greatness, or simply the death of one young boy caught off-guard, but whatever it is, when that moment comes, I find my heart pounding and my eyes wet every time.
Aside from the slow start my only complaint is how Kay handles Lin Shan in this book – that is, she is the only women of significance and every other female character is pushed to the background. Even the women she lives with go unnamed; they leave the room when Shan talks with the men because they know she is different, special. Kay includes Shan’s ruminations on her role as a woman in Kitan society, the restrictions placed on women in court, and her horror of foot-binding… and yet he fails to present any of the other women she meets as worthwhile or interesting in any way. Their thoughts and desires receive no reflection and their very presence seems to be an afterthought. Although Lin Shan is a strong character inhabiting a patriarchal society, she is essentially used as a token for femininity in the absence of any other women’s point of view.
The end of the book is deliberately ambiguous on the fate of some of the characters, but Kay nudges the reader to believe that at the end of the day, love does triumph. A bittersweet ending does require a little bit of happiness to balance the pain and regret, after all – it is my favorite sort of ending for a story.
River of Stars has flaws that keep it from being a truly great book. However, Kay so masterfully evokes apprehension, fear, desire, pride, disappointment, and passion that I know I will continue to return to his novels again and again.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½