It would be wrong to call Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel River of Stars a sequel to 2010’s Under Heaven. As Mr. Kay recently said in an interview I conducted with him: “If someone wrote a book about 16th century Italy (think, Renaissance) and another about Garibaldi in the 19th century, would we be discussing how they were similar or different, 400 years apart?”
It’s true: yes, these novels share the setting of Kitai, a fantasy version of China that’s, as the author likes to say, “a quarter turn to the fantastic” from history as we know it. However, they’re also set several centuries apart, changing the focus from the Tang Dynasty period to the very different Song Dynasty. They’re different in terms of main characters and thematic focus. They are entirely different novels, aside from both being set in Kitai and, of course, having been written by Guy Gavriel Kay, who is easily one of the most talented authors working in this genre and puts a recognizable stamp on anything he does.
So, calling Under Heaven and River of Stars a diptych like Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors would be unfair. Still, I believe there’s some worth in taking a look at the new novel from this perspective, and not just because many readers will approach River of Stars that way.
The most obvious connection remains the world of Kitai, but what’s interesting is not so much what stayed the same as what has changed since the end of Under Heaven. There’s been much discussion of Under Heaven’s epilogue: the description of the brutal sweep of the An Shi Rebellion is almost terse, compared to the typically lush prose Kay writes. The way one of the most violent conflicts in world history was summarized in just a few pages made it even more shocking. This was a true cataclysm in our world’s (and in Kitai’s) history. It signified the end of an era.
River of Stars, while not in any way a sequel to Under Heaven, nevertheless builds on the long-term effects of that cataclysm, simply by virtue of being set in the same area. It takes some time showing how Kitai has changed: politically, economically, sociologically. The characters and plot of the new novel are different, but the changes Kitai has gone through are essential to understanding them. Don’t get me wrong: there’s more to them than that, much more. If not, this novel wouldn’t be half as excellent as it is. But missing the historical perspective would mean missing a significant part of what makes River of Stars so special.
A strong atmosphere of bygone glory permeates this novel. Things aren’t what they used to be. The empire has been reduced in size. It looks inward, rather than outward. Its military is vastly reduced. Its emperor is more concerned with his gardens and calligraphy than his empire. Men have started growing the nail on their left pinky finger long, an affectation indicating they wouldn’t be caught handling a blade. This era of Kitai/China’s history also saw the beginnings of the practice of foot-binding: for women, smaller feet were considered aesthetically pleasing, never mind the painful process and the reduced mobility.
Place the novel’s two main characters in this context. Ren Daiyan is a young man, son of a minor official in the empire. He dreams of glory. While guarding a magistrate, he kills seven men, then disappears into the forests among the outlaws. The true motivation for this act, and Ren’s long term goals, gradually become more and more clear, but can only be understood fully when holding those two phases of Kitai’s history, the Tang and the Song Dynasties, side by side. Ren dreams of bygone glory and wants to play an active part in bringing it back..
The second main character is Lin Shan, a scholar’s daughter who becomes a gifted songwriter and calligrapher in an age when mastery of the intellectual arts isn’t a prized characteristic in women. Even the fact that her father educated her breaks the mold. This is an age during which the general attitude towards women has changed drastically and an Empress is routinely and unrealistically blamed for a rebellion that started more than a century after her death. The friendship of Lin Shan’s father with a controversial poet who ends up on the wrong side of a conflict in the emperor’s court starts off her own involvement in the larger tapestry of the empire’s vicious politics.
There are many other characters, some more important than others, but Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are the two pillars around which this novel is built. And again, I feel that they cannot be understood fully without explicitly comparing their motivations and actions to the brighter, more enlightened age shown in Under Heaven. The author emphasizes the contrast between the two periods throughout the novel, referring occasionally to the events portrayed in Under Heaven, memorably evoking bygone glory by describing a walk through the abandoned wards of the old capital that made such a vivid impression in the first novel.
Still, it’s also important that point that, even living in the shadows of the past, Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are forward-looking characters who break the mold. They are fascinating, independent people. Maybe stretching the title’s river metaphor a bit uncomfortably: they’re not being carried along by the stream of history, but instead swimming sideways to or even against the current. The conflicts created by this are what makes up the core of the novel. But, again, those conflicts would lose some of their impact without considering the larger historical perspective.
An ongoing theme of the novel is movement, mobility, the ability to step out of the expected path and strike out for something new. All paths in the emperor’s fantastical garden are curved, because demons cannot travel in a straight line. The garden is meant to be a mirror of the empire, but in the real world outside of the emperor’s expensive fantasy, some people still try to carve their own paths. At least, if their feet haven’t been bound, making mobility (social and otherwise) so much more difficult.
Take a look at the specific way Lin Shan takes revenge on an attacker in this light. Consider how some characters fatalistically think: “After what had just happened, it didn’t seem to matter. Their course was set, like stars.” Lin Shan is gently warned that “The world is not going to allow you to be what you might be.” It’s better to go with the flow: “You will break yourself, as if on rocks.” It’s a constant struggle: one moment, she fiercely thinks “[...] she will not, she will not live defined or controlled by what others think or say.” But later: “Amending the world? That was for gods.”
All of these fascinating stories are once again set in a world that resembles ours, mirroring historical events you can easily research. Several characters are obvious parallels to historical figures. You don’t need to be aware of the history to appreciate the novel, because it’s a wonderful story in its own right, but personally I feel that picking up some basic facts about the period enriched my reading experience. Fire up Wikipedia, start with “Song Dynasty”, and you can spend hours looking for the many minor and major ways Guy Gavriel Kay evokes a recognizable but subtly altered historical period after applying (there’s that wonderful expression again) his trademark “quarter turn to the fantastical”. (If you want to dig deeper, you can find a list of great works in the aforementioned interview.)
When Lin Shan says, early on in River of Stars, that “life and history must be adapted to the needs of our verses and songs”, it’s hard to not to draw parallels to Kay’s modus operandi. “If we alter details, we may aspire to deeper truths.” The power of Guy Gavriel Kay’s fiction derives, at least in part, from this willingness to depart from the known. It somehow amplifies the impact of history by departing from it. The poets will have the last word, indeed.
Kay’s prose is, as usual, gorgeous and rich. The imagery is often direct and simple, carefully introduced in small ways early on to later impact the narrative with surprising strength. The tone is pensive, contemplative even—a sotto voce narration with frequent pauses for reflection. Occasionally, Kay inserts a more general observation into the narrative, almost like an omniscient narrator, which gives the story a more ominous, even fatalistic tone, somewhat similar to the effect of Under Heaven’s epilogue.
The plot setup is careful and slow: we meet people destined for greatness and significance, but at the very start of their careers, while others are on the gentle (or not so gentle) downward curve towards old age. It takes a while for all these strands to develop and come together, but when they do, the effect is sweeping and memorable. This is a novel that, like almost everything Kay has written, richly rewards a second reading. It’s hard to fully appreciate the subtle richness this author brings to his stories during a first visit to his worlds.
When comparing River of Stars to Kay’s previous works, I would rank it high but not at the very top of his range. That’s still reserved for some of his earlier works, such as A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan. The main reason—and this is probably a highly personal one—is that I felt less of an emotional connection with this set of characters. Kay is one of the very few authors who, at his best, can truly move me, to the point of tears. I may have changed as a reader, or this may just be a different novel, but I appreciated River of Stars in a less emotional, more cerebral way.
Still, River of Stars is again a gorgeous novel. Guy Gavriel Kay is an author I consistently rank among the very best working in fantasy. It takes him a few years to finish his works, but it always turns out to be more than worth the wait. River of Stars is no exception. If you aren’t reading Guy Gavriel Kay yet, you’re missing out on some of the very best writing you can find inside or outside the fantasy genre.