Genre: Epic Fantasy
We Are Not Gods. We Make Mistakes. We Do Not Live Very Long.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s most recent novel has readers returning to Kitai, which is the same setting for one of his previous books, Under Heaven. If you haven’t read that book, you can still read River of Stars, as this is not a direct sequel.
Longtime readers of Guy Gavriel Kay should know what to expect from the author now: a highly emotional tone, a heavy emphasis on history, low amounts of magic (if any at all), and lyrical prose. River of Stars is all of these things, with the exception of a few nit picky issues with pacing, Kay delivers another great novel that will likely please old fans and win him some new one’s, too.
River of Stars follows important figureheads in the long standing and culturally influential Kitai Empire as it heads into decline.
Ren Daiyan is a young boy who has a penchant with a bow. An early incident with a group of outlaws spurs him to become an extraordinary figure in the history of Kitai. Lin Shan, the daughter of a low ranking noble, receives an education that is usually reserved for men. With her knowledge she wins some powerful friends, but just as many dangerous enemies.
Joining these two characters is an ensemble cast of poets, warriors, barbarians, princes, and emperors who prepare to deal with shifting balances of power in the northern steppes, balances that will change Kitai forever.
The Kitai Empire has its roots in Chinese history. The events that this book is specifically based off of are the Jin-Song Wars. River of Stars is a historical fantasy, and there is a heavy emphasis on history in this novel. Very few instances where actual magic is used makes its way into the story, and even those moments could be argued as being non-magical. A book like this is an excellent entry point into fantasy if you really like history.
While Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan may be the two central characters of this story, a number of other memorable faces are integral to making Kay’s story the success that it is. Wenzong the Kitai Emperor is more interested in his garden and calligraphy than he is in ruling the empire. Deputy Prime Minister Kai Zhen has great ambitions for the empire, and with his psychotic wife, Yu-Lan, they form a dangerous couple. Revered poet Lu Chen is in exile and is feared by the Empire for his poetry which can stir up the masses.
Kay is also notorious for being unmerciful to his characters. A number of characters with great potential meet grisly ends -even early on in the story. A feeling of nobody’s safe hangs over the reader’s head. The plot line is largely unpredictable. Every time I thought I knew where the moment to moment parts of the plot were going, Kay would throw a wrench in it. Even the larger arcing plot has twists in it – although this may be less of a case if you’re familiar with the Jin-Song Wars.
My biggest issue with the book was its pacing. Kay covers about 2-3 decades of time in a span of just over 600 pages. This leads Kay into covering individual moments in great detail, and then skipping around a couple of years to move on to the next moment. I found this to be jarring at times, especially in the middle section of the novel, where this happened frequently and the scope of the story starts to expand out of the Kitai Empire.
The other issue is that Kay builds his world for the first half of the book, which is done extremely well, but he doesn’t really start the main plot until half way through the book. So you have all this great world building, but a much shorter central plot. It feels like the world building didn’t entirely didn’t get its just due with the shortened plot.
Thoughtful characters, a complicated and irresponsible political system, military strategy, and rich history are combined to make River of Stars the philosophical and emotional novel that it is. Kay is one of the fantasy genre’s greatest craftsman with language, and his prose is still top of the line. His writing skill is worth the cover price alone. This is recommended for people who like history, and don’t like a lot of magic in their fantasy stories. Fans of Martin, Erikson, and Hobb who are looking to venture beyond those names, will likely find what they are looking for in the works of Kay.