We first see Ren Daiyan, the heroic protagonist of Kay’s newest novel, as an angst-ridden adolescent in a grove, wielding a bamboo sword to channel his anger. Living in a time of famine, and of war against the barbarian Kislik tribe, he is deeply aware of the diminished glory of the empire of Kitai. In its Twelfth Dynasty (a society based on Song Dynasty China), Kitai is forever overshadowed by the glory and ruin of the Ninth Dynasty (the Tang Dynasty). Kay weaves a theme through his novel that resonates harmoniously with what readers can expect in an epic fantasy novel. Diminished empires have been part of the epic fantasy genre ever since Tolkien described the fall of Númenor and Gondor. Even so, River of Stars is best described as a historical fantasy, using Kay’s technique of the “quarter-turn of the fantastic,” in which he depicts a reflection of a real-world society with magic that the society would have believed in. In Under Heaven, Kay described the fall of Ninth Dynasty Kitai during the years of tribulation that are referred to as the An Li Rebellion. In River of Stars, which is a sequel to Under Heaven (although Stars can stand by itself), we see the Kitan court’s pathological fear of the military, along with the emperor’s deep, conflicting desire to reconquer the Lost Fourteen Prefectures, Kitai’s old territories which are now ruled by the Xiaolu. Ren Daiyan’s dream is to enter the court and lead an army to reconquer the Prefectures, restoring the glory of Kitai. He is, however, only a teenager—not quite a man—fighting imaginary enemies in a glade. After killing a band of outlaws single-handedly on the road one day, his life changes irrevocably. The arc of his life then follows a larger-than-life curve. He wanders down paths with random forks, always keeping his single desire at heart: the restoration of an empire. Meanwhile, Kay weaves a brilliant subplot involving the poet Lin Shan. A woman given a man’s education by her devoted father, Shan is an expert calligrapher and the founder of a new genre of poetry: the ci. A succinct definition of ci is “new words set to old music,” which may refer to a theme in Kay’s novels of historical patterns being repeated in slightly different ways, during each time cycle. When Shan meets her poet idol Lu Chen, just before he is sent into exile, she becomes drawn into the world of court intrigue, where she must use her power as a poet to protect those she loves. In his signature manner, Kay depicts her feminine viewpoint in the present tense, to demonstrate how focused and observant (in-the-moment) a woman must be to survive in a ruthless, patriarchal world. Shan speaks out of turn with the men, asserting herself in ways that have become taboo, ever since women were blamed for the laziness of the Ninth Dynasty court. However, the present-day Twelfth Dynasty is just as decadent as the Ninth, though its glory is less. Shan is invited into the Genyue, a beautiful imperial garden sponsored by the Flowers and Rocks Network. The brainchild of prime minister Kai Zhen and his ally Wu Tong, the garden is a vision of harmony created at the expense of the lives of many peasants. Shan will have to court imperial patronage and favour here, placing her life in danger, even as Daiyan fights the Flowers and Rocks as an outlaw. Their lives inevitably interweave, like silk. Mixing the worlds of politics, art, and war is Kay’s trademark, and he does this while asking many questions about how history must be remembered, and how seemingly inevitable events actually carry themselves out. Kay also asks how legends are made, a process that may involve valiant actions on the part of real men and women, but also, inevitably, storytelling—and a dash of fantasy about the past, which inflates heroes to truly immense proportions. All this is to say nothing of Kay’s wonderful poetic ability, the quality of his words that elevates his novel beyond the limitations of epic fantasy, into a more literary domain. Veterans of Kay will find nothing lacking in River of Stars and newcomers can find a great introduction to the author here. However, I suggest that a reader new to Kay should read Under Heaven first, if they wish to receive the full weight and effect of River of Stars. Other reviews: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/02/interview-guy-gavriel-kay-author-of-river-of-stars/ http://www.fantasyliterature.com/reviews/river-of-stars/ http://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2013/04/what-were-reading-river-of-stars-by-guy-gavriel-kay/
[The review is done here. Following are some observations on the book itself, concerning my previous studies on Kay, and containing some spoiler material.] Being a Kay veteran (I have read all of his books now), I smiled on occasion while reading River of Stars. This smile emerged not directly as a result of what the author wrote, but in how what he wrote found reflections in his earlier novels. I do not know whether Kay’s intent is responsible for these echoes, or if it is simply a set of imagery and wording that keeps popping up in his body of work, but I am inclined to think it is a mixture of both.
One thing to understand about Kay’s novels, is that all of them are in some way connected to his initial trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry. Fionavar is known in his other novels by other names, such as Finavir (in Tigana) and Fiñar (in The Lions of Al-Rassan). The mentioning of Fionavar, or phrases that refer to the weaving of the Tapestry (such as “brightly woven,” “a bright loom,” or, in River of Stars, “the Weaver Maid”) tie each of his novels to Fionavar, which is the first world, the world of which all other worlds are merely reflections or echoes. Whether it is the author returning to similar images or themes due to the unconscious patterns of his mind, or a deliberate attempt to establish parallelism across his novels, Kay’s repetitions can all be attributed to the Tapestry. In River of Stars, there are two easy examples of parallelism: one is a reflection from The Summer Tree and the other is from The Lions of Al-Rassan. The Xiaolu emperor has a custom where women dance around a fire for him. This dance also serves to demonstrate power, when the emperor forces the leaders of subservient tribes to dance. In The Fionavar Tapestry, the nomadic Dalrei tribe, a horse-riding people of the plain, have a prominent custom of almost exactly the same type as the Xiaolu. The parallelism suggests that in some mysterious way, the Xiaolu are reflections of the Dalrei. Secondly, there is a moment in River of Stars greatly similar to one in The Lions of Al-Rassan. The brother of the war leader of the Altai tribe essentially repeats King Ramiro’s speech, which describes his dream of being able to ride his horse into the sea on the other side of Al-Rassan (in the Altai’s case, Kitai), claiming all the lands behind him as part of his kingdom. The language of the two speeches are so closely linked that the only explanation is that Kay is trying to deliberately draw a parallel. Those familiar with the poetry Kay brings to his writing will know that he would never repeat himself out of laziness. The King Ramiro grace note suggests that readers who are familiar with Kay should compare the narrative arc of restoration and reconquest in River of Stars to the perspective of the Jaddites in their reconquest of Al-Rassan. The Jaddite reconquest was seen as an arrogant assertion in Kay’s earlier novel, a “reconquest” of a land that was never theirs in the first place. This adds to the sense that the Altai have no right to conquer the Xiaolu—but also challenges the idea that Kitai has a right to reconquer the Lost Fourteen, which have for so long been in Xiaolu hands. After all, whether the peasants in the Lost Fourteen must pay taxes to the Xiaolu or the Kitan emperor makes no difference to them. We find ourselves asking, “How long do a people have to live in a country before they become native to it?” This question was also asked in Kay’s novel Ysabel, regarding Phelan the Roman’s integration into Celtic lands in the south of France, over the thousands of years he’s been living there. As a matter of fact, the moral ambiguity of reconquest becomes one of the central issues in River of Stars. The novel ends up questioning whether it is best to attempt to amend the brokenness of an empire through reconquest, or whether peace is best established in other ways, such as through compromise. River of Stars sets up a narrative of wrongness, thinning, recognition, and healing (terms by John Clute; see link) quite distinctly in its narrative arc—and in a distinctive Kay-like manner, questions that arc. In a way, his novel attempts to answer the question, “Is an individual really, in the words of Ninth Dynasty poet Sima Zian, ‘powerless to amend a broken world?'” The answer might surprise you. No more spoilers; read the book.