Sunday, August 18, 2013

Book Review: River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

River of Stars reminded me what ambition means in literature. It's some of most fun and thought I've had in Epic Fantasy, the most rewarding one I've read since George R.R. Martin's A Storm of Swords, and manages to carve out its own niche. It's inspired by Song Dynasty China, emerging from a nostalgia for past dynasties so rich they it must be at least partially false. It follows teens, bandits and elites up through the rise of a war against the north that is foolish, destructive, and defining of their generation. It's the cycle of one lifetime, told from a dozen points of view and with a richness that I'll re-read many times.

We're tempted to say that River of Stars is "based" on Song Dynasty Chinese culture, but that's not quite accurate. While Kay has meticulously researched the period, he creates incredibly diverse people from around the country of "Kitai," which make the notion of a singular culture or nation silly. There's Ren Daiyan, the brave outlaw who infiltrates the army and rises through its ranks, and his buddy, Zhao Ziji, a romantic thinker who buys too deeply into every calling in life, be it government work, war, or highway robbery. There's Lin Kuo, a scholar who so wanted a wise child that he raised and educated his daughter like a boy, and Lin Shan, Kuo's daughter, whose education leaves her particularly critical of the misogynist establishment, and later, estranged by the war it creates. We even meet the Prime Minister, his son, and the emperor himself, that last a fascinating introduction of a privileged soul deluded with visions of his own generosity and heart. The cast give us the rural life, the poetry and art, the politics and military motions that are irreconcilable with each other. There's no such thing as a culture for a country that big. There are bandits who can become heroes in wars that scholars will only ever hear and write third-hand poetry about.

This was my first Kay novel.
Kay brings the prose. There are characters described in plain language, who exist in "black moods" and think simply, but there are also poets whose scenes are florid and gorgeous, and broken souls whose contemplation becomes wistful and trickle down generations of implication. There's a Homeric beauty to some of the combat, but in the next scene you may be struck by sympathy for victims, or that the next point of view doesn't even know there is a war. Time complicates matters so richly; early chapters see servants struggling to bring nightingales to the emperor's court, and many chapters and years later, in the riots of famine, the peasants are seen eating nightingale. The world and the novel are too big to not stir.

Several of the most striking passages are observations on art itself. Early on, Lin Shan enters debate with an older scholar about why poems so frequently depict women as helpless, romantic or tragic objects; these are real roles of women, but by always depicting them, poets tell people to expect only these things. It's a sly meta-fiction on Lin Shan herself, who seeks to defy her traditional role and pursue independence and the arts. Much later, one character laments to himself what cultural items will mean to people in later generations, without expressing that meaning, provoking whether all the setting descriptions are just a novelty in the book or if they truly allow us to access its culture. And there are constant questions as to how people will be remembered, to the point where we can question if we witnessed a real death, and if we did, if it matters because every character thereafter is reacting to a different story that spread, without the text so much as winking at us. It becomes unnerving and tantalizing how his narration will sometimes be so keenly aware of things, and at others, utterly refuse contemplation - just as these things vary from person to person.

At its heart, the novel is not about a young woman bucking sexism or a bandit becoming a legend. It is about ambition. The eponymous "River of Stars" can be seen as the literal night sky, but is later referred to as what lies between mortal men and their dreams. The river of stars may as well be the trail of ambition, and given the movements of Kay's court, of low-class characters struggling to rise, and foreign powers pressing against the borders, this is a novel about what ambition steals from others and pours into the well of history.

The novel is being compared to George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones because, beyond their blatant historical bases, they apply many points of view to give terrifically rounded perspectives on massive conflicts. But River of Stars is a much more contained genius than Martin's sprawling series; where Martin's books are so long that I'm more compelled to look up the answer to a query on a Wiki, Kay's novel is so sharp with all its pages that I'd rather re-read the whole novel and pick up new threads next time. If 660 pages can be called brief, it's brief enough to be worth mining through additional readings rather than googling your way through. It's rich enough that I sometimes felt taxed discerning all of the characters and motivational threads, but always enjoyed parsing them. There were cynical theories cast in the last hundred pages by characters I detested about ones I admired that, after I put the book down, I realized I needed to test by reading those journeys again. Now that's ambitious.


  1. What a thoughtful review. I haven't heard of River of Stars, but it sounds fascinating. A book that long that tempts you to read it again must be good!

    1. It's quite worth trying. I believe sample chapters are up on most e-reader sites, too.


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