River of Stars ~ Guy Gavriel Kay

  • Title:  River of Stars
  • Author:  Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Genre:  Historical Fiction, Fantasy
  • Format:  Audio book
  • Source:  Library
  • Reviewed by: Valerie
  • Rating:  3.5 out of 5

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p>Description:  In his critically acclaimed novel Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay told a vivid and powerful story inspired by China’s Tang Dynasty. Now, the international bestselling and multiple award-winning author revisits that invented setting four centuries later with an epic of prideful emperors, battling courtiers, bandits and soldiers, nomadic invasions, and a woman battling in her own way, to find a new place for women in the world – a world inspired this time by the glittering, decadent Song Dynasty.

Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars.

Review:  Once again, Guy Gavriel Kay has immersed himself in the historical culture of ancient China, this time focusing within the 12th Dynasty. Just he did in the acclaimed Under Heaven, he slowly and methodically crafts his tale. Perhaps a little too slowly in River of Stars. There were times when story seemed to drag a bit, and yet I could not help but continuing on with the story.

Kay has a way about his story telling. In River of Stars he puts so much detail into creating the world that you almost feel as if the setting is itself a character of the book. It is clear that he spent a great deal of time researching this period of the Song Dynasty’s history. By the story’s end, the readers feels almost as if they visited that time, so long ago. Or maybe that is because they feel a compulsion to read up on some of the history on their own.

The two primary characters in River of Stars, Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are clearly inspired by actual historical figures. Kay has a way of taking people and moments from time, and weaving a fictional account of what might have been. Within his telling, he pays homage to the existing mythology by capturing their truths of beauty, loyalty, and honor.

The characters of Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan remind me of the Yin and Yang. They are bound together and yet they are opposites. Ren Daiyan has a clear sense of his place within his time, a purpose that motivates him. Whereas, on the other hand, Lin Shan is a woman out of place in her own time and struggle to find her place in society. While they are very different, they both share an ability to recognize truth.

In addition to characters and themes, Kay incorporates much of Song Dynasty culture in this opus. In fact, while this book is often categorized as fantasy, the fantastical elements play more into the cultural superstitions of the time, making them seem more of a historical interpretation of events through the eyes of the characters. The author really seems to like the concept of fox spirits, featuring one in both River of Stars and Under Heaven. He details the prominent role of poetry and art and their cultural significance to that time. I can’t help but reflect that in our modern equivalents of pop music and movies just do not hold the same serene sense of beauty. In contrast, the battles scenes are sharp and brutal, yet equally brilliant in the telling.

I experience River of Stars in audio book format. The narration is very calm and slow. I thought that this worked well for Under Heaven, but found it frustrating for River of Stars. There were just moments that I felt would be better told with more energy. In particular, the understated vocalization did little to capture the sassy and mischievous nature of the Daji (fox woman). At times, the calming tones felt as if they might lull me to sleep.

While I enjoyed the story, I did struggle to get through the book. The entire tone of the story was so calm and methodical that it made an already long book feel even longer.

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