River of Stars
Guy Gavriel Kay
In his last book, Under Heaven, Canadian award-winning novelist Guy Gavriel Kay created a historical fantasy novel set in China’s Tang Dynasty.
In River of Stars, released last spring, Kay returned to the same world some four centuries later.
It’s not quite a sequel, although events of the first book are occasionally referenced. In this one, the once powerful Kitai Empire is now divided, both externally and internally.
The empire is now subjugated to its northern rival, the Xialou Empire, which takes yearly tribute from Kitai. Internally, the court is divided by bitter factions that circle their Emperor, willing to do anything to curry favour, including starting what would surely be a disastrous war with the north.
Kitai also is bitter over the loss of what it calls the 14 prefectures, areas rightfully theirs that have been controlled by the Xialou for 200 years.
Into this ficticious world set in the decadent 12th Dynasty, Kay creates two strong, powerful characters destined, inevitably, to meet up with each other and change the course of Kitai’s history.
In the first pages, we are introduced to the young Ren Daiyan. The second son of a records clerk, he pretty much has no chance for fame and fortune, but, large for his age and confident, he is determined to grow up to be one of the greatest men of his time, destined to restore glory to a diminished world.
His prowess with a bow is not undetected, and as a teenager, he is selected to join the sub-prefect’s bodyguard team on a journey to a neighbouring town. It’s an important mission, one that his parents see as an opportunity for him to bring honour to his family.
This will be Daiyan’s moment. The trip leads to a fateful ambush in which Daiyan kills seven men with seven arrows in an instant. He decides there and then not to return to his hometown, but escapes into the forests the bandits came from, thus beginning his new journey.
Lin Shan is 17 when we first meet her. She is the only daughter of Lin Kuo, a respected court gentlemen. She is on her way with her father to visit the renowned Xi Wengao, a former prime minster, during the empire’s illustrious Peony Festival. She is tall for a woman and can read the classics and the poets. Her father has educated her in many disciplines – she has a good writing hand and can sing and write songs in the new, modern style. Her father even trained her in archery. None of this is proper for a girl.
Shan is a fiercely independent woman, something unheard of in that time and place, when women bound their feet in subservience to men. She is adamant that she will not live life defined or controlled by what others think or say. She will not live the life others have chosen for her.
Time passes quickly. Daiyan becomes an outlaw, one about whom legends will be told for centuries. His strategy and skills are renowned and soon he is courted by a court official to join his guard, where he then rises to the role of a commander in the Emperor’s army.
Shan, meanwhile, marries Qi Wai, a marriage her father has sought and approved of. At the time, he is a student of archeology, but, more importantly, he belongs to the exclusive imperial clan that offers Shan luxuries, privilege and servants.
“A woman marrying into the clan lives a different life. And it can be a good life, depending on the woman, on her husband, on the will of heaven,” Kay writes. At the same time, it isn’t always desirable, because marrying into the imperial clan means living a sequestered life, shaped by ceremony and regulation.
As part of the imperial clan, Shan gets the opportunity to meet the Emperor himself, and has frank, bold discussions with him, persuading him to release her favourite poet who has fallen into disfavour and been exiled.
Disfavour and falling from grace form a big part of the middle game of this novel, which can be likened into a form of Chinese Game of Thrones. Politics and court intrigue play a major part.
The Kitai Empire is a shadow of its former self. It has just suffered a crushing military defeat at the hands of the neighbouring Kisliks, a tribal faction, primarily as a result of incompetence. (The general forgot to take siege weapons with his invading army.) Blame is thrown around and ministers are exiled or killed. It is said that in Kitai, people rise and fall. When you fall in Kitai, you fall a long way.
The Emperor himself spends most of his time in his wonderful garden and is mostly disinterested in the burdens of government. The garden is a monument to the empire itself, vast with man-made hills, lakes and mountains. He is unaware of just how many common people have died to build this luxury.
Within his court, two rivals, Hang Deijin and Kai Zhen, are vying for power. They will not stop at anything to further their own careers. Zhen’s wife, a Lady Macbeth-like character, plots an elaborate scheme to kill Shan, and this is where Daiyan’s life and Shan’s intersect.
If the second part of the book gets somewhat bogged down by politics and intrigue, the patient reader is rewarded toward the end as things march headlong to a dramatic climax.
A new emerging tribe from the Koreini Peninsula, the Altai, is ascending and threatens the Kitai city of Hanjin. The Kitai, not accustomed to war, find themselves defending their city against the vastly superior barbarian hordes. Into this, Daiyan, now marked by prophecy, is a messianic figure called to change the tide and protect the empire.
There is very little fantasy or supernatural in this book, less than in Under Heaven and far less than his award-winninng Yisobel. There are many references to ghosts (which played a key role in the previous book) and a dramatic encounter with a Daiji, a half-woman, half-wolf seductress. But River of Stars is still full of Kay’s other trademarks, strong, powerful characters, artfully created worlds, and delightful, poetic prose.
Ultimately, this is a novel about loyalty and betrayal. Some would betray their country for profit, others would sacrifice their lives for their Emperor.
Although there are some slow, digressive moments, particularly in the middle of this 600-page novel, fans of Kay will once again be delighted with it.