Guy Gavriel Kay is in a class all his own in the fantasy field. He explores meticulously researched and detailed cultures filled with fascinating characters and then is capable of moving on—no other fantasy writer seems to have the leeway from either readers or publishers to do so. So rare in these days of delivering a book a year at minimum. Neither has Kay’s deliberate pace attracted the ire of a “shadow fandom” of complaints as George R.R. Martin’s has. The Emperor of Kitai ruminates, composes, and creates in a garden manufactured to mirror his empire, while Kay does the same with our world’s history in his latest historical fantasy, River of Stars. Despite also being set in Kitai, Kay’s slightly askew version of China, River of Stars is not a sequel to 2010’s Under Heaven. Even should the reader know nothing of Shen Tai and his Sardian Horses, Kanlin warriors, or poets Sima Zian and Chan Du, River of Stars may be freely read and thoroughly enjoyed.
The story begins with Ren Daiyan, living in a province on the western margin of the Empire of Kitai, now in its twelfth dynasty, and in decline. Kitai faces danger from factions within its borders, and from the steppe barbarians, the Xiaolu, beyond the ruins of the Long Wall. It is a simple beginning, and one very familiar to readers of fantasy: a young boy from a small farming community, with big dreams who was “grimly, unshakably determined to be one of the great men of his time, restoring glory with his virtue to a diminished world.” A familiar beginning perhaps, but it calls to the nature of the heroic journey and how legends can be born from such simple beginnings. Deadly with sword and bow when it was shameful for men to have such proficiency, Ren Daiyan—first a student, and then a bandit, a soldier, a general—is destined to shake the world under heaven.
Lin Shan is a woman out of her time: educated, a poet, and a deep thinker, when women are supposed to be none of these things. Shan’s story, unlike that of the other characters, is told in the present tense. In a lesser hand, Shan’s difference would stand out poorly, but instead the device feels natural, not imposed. Her uniqueness and seeming loneliness in this stylistic choice serves to emphasize that in this dynasty, folk fear the past even as they long to reclaim its glories. Even the dynamic Ren Daiyan is pledged to “Never Forget Our Rivers and Mountains Lost.”
Lin Shan understands that such reclamation is an impossibility. “Even after peace was finally restored, glory was never the same. Everything changed. Even the poetry. You couldn’t write or think the same way after eight years of death and savagery and all they’d lost.” It is unsurprising that Kay would find inspiration in the great poets of the age he is chronicling; after all, he’s a poet himself (2003’s Beyond This Dark House). River of Stars is peppered with verse, poems that Kay states in his acknowledgements are “largely variations—sometimes cleaving near to an actual work, sometimes veering away.”
Kay even finds magic in poetry. A poem written upon a yamen wall by Lu Chen, acknowledged the greatest poet of the Twelfth Dynasty, reappears after fading from the elements. The magic of River of Stars, and that of Kitai, is a subtle thing. It is found in ghosts and spirits birthed by not being buried. In superstitions explaining why a garden had curved paths: “Demons could only travel a straight line.” Magic is not something witnessed on a grand scale, there are no dragons here. Though Kay tweaks the nose of that particular trope. “Some writers later, describing the events of that night and day, wrote that Wan’yen of the Altai had seen a spirit-dragon of the river and become afraid. Writers do that sort of thing. They like dragons in their tales.”
Every word in River of Stars is meticulously placed, weighted for perfect effect. Kay compares writing and war, the brush is a bow, the calligrapher an archer. His use of phrases such as “in the current,” referring to those in the know of the bureaucracy, calls to the title of the novel, as does “Not every man or woman sailing down the river will be a figure of force or significance. Some are merely in the boat with all of us.” Judicious repetition of similar phrases, peppered throughout the text, help Kitai to feel more organic, more real.
There is humour too, amid the war and politicking. Whether in two men bonding over unfortunate penis-related nicknames or in a verbal spar between Lin Shan and Lu Chen about his coming exile to the deadly island of Lingzhou and the dangers of large spiders:
She says…“…they eat men?”
“Poets, I am told. Twice a year a number of them come from the forests into the square of the one town and they must be fed a poet or they will not leave. There is a ceremony.”
She allows herself a brief smile. “A reason not to write poetry?”
“I am told they make prisoners at the yamen compose a verse in order to receive their meals.”
“How cruel. And that qualifies them as poets?”
“The spiders are not critical, I understand.”
Without preaching to his readers, Kay destroys the assertion that fantasy has nothing to say about the human condition or contemporary life, after all, “…even if we alter details we may aspire to deeper truth, not only offer falsehoods?” There are also places in our world where the simple act of educating a daughter is an act of great courage. Xenophobia is hardly unique to ancient cultures. “Strangers in your village were bad because a traveller had once robbed your wife’s cousin while passing through” could be advice you hear today. Women’s rights are being attacked right now, as they were with the rise of the practice of foot-binding. Shan’s father tells her “if the men of our time forget how to ride and hunt, and are carried by bearers wherever they go, even to the house next door, how do they ensure women are even more diminished? This. This is what happens now.” Fantasy tropes have primed you to expect certain things—the hero winning the day, foremost among them—and Kay plays with such expectations brilliantly. But River of Stars is drawn from history, and as Kay says, “History is not always kind or just,” but it can be thrilling.
Penguin | 656 pages | $32.00 | cloth | ISBN # 978-0670068401