A River of Stars – A Review

I just completed Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, A River of Stars. I was waiting anxiously to read this book. It does not disappoint.

A River of Stars (RoS) is historical fantasy set in the Song Dynasty of China – which are fictionalized as the 12th dynasty and Kitai respectively. In some ways it revisits the setting of Kay’s precious work, Under Heaven. River of Stars shares a locale, but is set a few hundred years later.

All the major characters in RoS are fictional versions of important figures at the end of the Northern Song. The two most central are Lin Shan, a poet and Ren Daiyan, a Kitai army general. But there are many additional characters including emperors, prime ministers, ambassadors, poets, soldiers and others.

The characters all have intersecting story arcs as the novel explores the last days of the dynasty and its invasion by the northern Altai.

I suck at plot recaps. I never want to give too much away.

I really enjoyed this book.

Here are three things I felt were weak:
1) slow start – but that might just be me. I’m having a tricky time getting engaged by books lately.

2) the central romantic relationship feels weak. Maybe it isn’t weak, but it isn’t as strong or compelling as the rest of the relationships around it.

3) the role of women in the society is raised as a theme, but is only lightly explored.

I loved everything else. And there is quite a bit to love. And I can even make excuses for the items above.

The themes are strong and well presented. Overall the books reads as an elegy. Each character deals with saying goodbye to various elements such as innocence, love and patriotism. The book is less about the loss than dealing with the loss or even preparing for it.

Another major theme is the intersection of personal goals with politics and world events. Frequently alliances are formed between foes as they adjust to a changing world.

A final theme is the discrepancy between what is and what could have been if not for small, near random, changes.

The setting, in time and place and culture, is fantastic. It drips mood and tone. There are gardens and battlefields, swamps, huts and palaces. And Kay is a master of the detail to make a setting seem real.

And the characters are good. Very good. I mentioned only a few above, but each cast member is drawn as a unique and interesting character.

It is a fantasy book and it does contains some elements of the genre. As usual they are understated. Sometimes in recent Kay books they’ve seemed a bit tacked on. Not so in this book. They seem integral and natural. There is some magic with ghosts, premonitions and one otherworldly creature. There is also some action.

Kay is particularly apt at writing passages of emotional intensity. Parts where you cheer or laugh aloud. And in one part where I had tears streaming down my face. The author sets up these moments carefully, but it still doesn’t feel manipulative. The emotional moments are honestly earned.

Finally, the novel made me go and read a little on the actual history and biographies of the people fictionally represented. I thought junior high social studies had crushed all interest in Chinese history in me for all time. This book rekindled some interest.

Double plus good.

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