It’s always a big event in my world when Guy Gavriel Kay, my favourite fantasy writer, comes out with a new novel, and River of Stars was definitely worth the wait. Like Under Heaven, this book is set in Kitai, which is based on medieval China — a refreshing change from the Eurocentric worlds of most fantasy fiction. Kay’s method is to research a place and time as intensely as if he were writing historical fiction, but then to free himself from the constraints of actual history by changing names and details and writing it as fantasy, which allows him to invent characters and change the course of events. If you’re a hard-core fantasy fan who likes more sorcery than swords, you may find Kay’s writing disappointing, because the strictly “fantastic” elements are minimal (and becoming less with each book, it seems to me). There’s no real “magic” as we usually think of it in the world of Kitai, only elements that in our world we would think of as folklore and superstition, which are real within the world of the novel. You could remove those elements and while the story would lose a little of its strange otherness, the plot and character development would be essentially unchanged. The story told in River of Stars is a very human story — it didn’t happen exactly this way in Song Dynasty China, but it certainly could have.
What animates Kay’s fantasy novels are not wizards and spells but human interactions — politics and love and betrayal. His main characters in this novel are Ren Daiyan, a young outlaw-turned-soldier who believes that it’s his destiny to win back his country’s lost territory and former military glory, and Lin Shan, a poet who has received an education far beyond what’s normal for girls in her culture and so has ambitions bigger than women are normally expected to have. That their paths will eventually cross is inevitable, but the love story is subordinate to the bigger political story in which they, along with many others, are caught up. The barbarians are, quite literally, at the gates — Mongol-like hordes from the steppes. Ren Daiyan believes it’s possible to fight back and not only defend the territory they have but win back some of the greatness Kitai has lost, but those in power have other ideas.
The genius in this, as in many of Kay’s novels, is to juxtapose the intimate stories of individuals who feel absolutely like real people, with big stories — the rise and fall of empires — and show us what impact individuals can have on the course of history — as well as what they can’t do. Because he makes his characters so vivid and alive, we root for them even when we don’t agree with them. If you asked me whether it was better for a country to live peacefully in a smaller territory and avoid war, or engage in a huge costly war of conquest and expansion, I would definitely approve of the first option — yet by halfway through the book I’d become so immersed in Ren Daiyan’s character that I wanted him to succeed in his quest to bring back the lost days of Kitai’s glory. To me, that’s one sign of a great writer.
If you find Kay’s writing slow or hard to get into, as some do, this probably won’t be the book to change your mind — his typical intricate style and careful pacing is on display here, as are a few stylistic and plot tropes that are familiar to his regular readers (once we got near the end, I was able to predict the ending because it was similar to a plot twist Kay has used in other books). And the usual fantasy-novel problem of keeping track of characters’ made-up names is compounded her by them being made up Chinese names — even more challenging for an English-speaking reader, and there were a couple of minor characters I never did get straightened out. But these are minor quibbles about a lovely book. My main problem reading this was trying to distract myself and draw it out longer so I wouldn’t race through it too quickly. I enjoyed being in the world of the book so much that I tried to make it last nearly a week instead of the day or two that I could have read it in. Though Kay’s fantasy contains very little magic in the usual fantasy-novel sense, his ability to build a real world and draw readers into it is truly magical.