River of Stars
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Cover Artist: Larry Rostant
Review by Mel Jacob
Roc Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780451464972
Date: 02 April 2013 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
I'm a fan of Guy Gavriel Kay and enjoyed River of Stars. The novel provides a view into late Eleventh and early Twelfth century China. Extensive research underpins the action and characters. A fictional history of the period provides insights into how and why the Chinese empire fell prey to barbarians from the steppes. It also offers insights into the uneasy relations between military forces and the civilians controlling them and insights for our own government. Loyalty and its meaning is a major theme.
The story is a sweeping historical saga told through the eyes of many characters. The main characters are richly layered and even minor actors feel real. The hero, Ren Daiyan, kills seven men to protect a civil servant. Because of the laws, he is forced to flee and becomes an outlaw. Later, he becomes a military leader and the only one to defeat the steppe riders.
Lin Shan, a woman and poet, is raised and educated by her father. Taught to think for herself, she is considered an unnatural woman. Her father wisely negotiates a marriage to a member of the imperial household who accepts her as she is. The husband-to-be, a collector of antiquities, allows Lady Lin Shan to become his helpmate and partner.
The current emperor is a scholar and artist who spends his time building a garden intended as a physical representation of the country. Many lives and much money goes into it while court ministers rule the country. This aspect resembles an apocryphal tale of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.
Meanwhile, the restless steppe riders vie for control of the lands to the north. Eventually, one tribe emerges dominate and strong enough to challenge the Kitan (Chinese) Sung Empire to the south. A cruel, bloody war ensues and the Chinese are forced yet again to yield treasure and slaves to the riders. The land and citizenry lies in ruin.
Ren believes it is his destiny to drive the invaders out and regain lost lands. In a fantasy segment, a fox-woman, a spirit, etches his slogan on his back: Never forget our rivers and mountains lost. It appears in the current emperor's own script. It represents the Fourteen Prefectures taken some time ago by the steppe riders and confirms Renís belief in his destiny to recover them. Ultimately, he faces a choice between loyalty and death, but the question is loyalty to what. The author leaves the reader to conclude Ren's choice.
The characters exist in a highly structured society. Many of the cultured and elite are left with no real function. Roles and expectations are clear, but rigid. Those like Ren and Lin Shan do not fit.
Rich in language and symbolism, the story like the great rivers of China flows inexorably toward its conclusion. Other writers have written novels like this of other empires and times, Kay's sensitivity, empathy, and lyrical prose make his writings special.