RIVER OF STARS
Guy Gavriel Kay
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay repurposed the Tang Dynasty to tell his story of Shen Tai. Set centuries later, River of Stars is a similar treatment of the end of the Northern Song Dynasty when it fell to the invading Jurchen. Although war between the nomadic tribe, here called the Altai, and the established Kitai Empire form a large part of River of Stars, Kay is really more interested in the way legends are built up in this novel.
The novel begins following several different characters, few of whom have story arcs which would be expected from their initial introduction. Ren Daiyan is a younger son whose practice with a bamboo sword and bow gets him selected for an escort for the sub-prefect, Wang Fuyin. The poet Lu Chen is exiled to the distant island of Lingzhou, where he is expected to die. The Xiaolu Emperor Te-kuan is consolidating his hold over the various tribes of steppe nomads while ruling over the lost provinces of the Kitai, and Lin Shan tries to make her own stab for womenís rights as a poet and scholar in her own right, a goal which her father heartily supports even as he searches for a worthy husband for her. One of the intriguing aspects of River of Stars is that Kay is happy to include what appear to be asides from his main story and it isnít until well into the book that it becomes clear which of the storylines he is telling will become important and will tie together.
The narrative voice in the novel is very clearly omnipotent, indicating that events will eventually prove to be legendary, as well as the fact that the telling of those events will change their very nature. However, in some ways the narrator is also unreliable. A prophecy foretold is not necessarily a prophecy that will come true, and in some cases, the prophecies that do come true do so in non-obvious ways. Kay includes actions by characters from all levels of society and clearly shows that the greatest lords of the lands can have an effect on the lowliest peasants, whether intended or not. Although there is a war brewing between the Kitai and the Steppes, the events that influence peopleís lives can be as minor as the moving of a rock or a tree from its location.
As with so many of Kayís novels, River of Stars is difficult to classify. Although it does have minor elements of fantasy, including ghosts, the apparent whims of gods, and the presence of spirits, nearly all of those elements can be dismissed as the interpretation of the characters within their own framework of belief. Kayís adoption of history as the basis for his writing is also an interesting choice. By setting his tale in the land of Kitai rather than China, he permits himself liberties of character, geography, and events, which would not be allowed if her were writing a straight historical novel. It is a decision which has served Kay well in the past and continues to do so with River of Stars.
In addition to the deeper question of the role of narrative and the relationships Kay depicts, River of Stars provides a wonderfully rich historical epic that is painted against a background of a China that never quite existed, but borrows from our own China, both culturally and historically, to create a deep and well-rounded society for Kayís story.
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