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Guy Gavriel Kay – River of Stars

June 5, 2013

38. River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay (2013)

Read By: Simon Vance
Length: 20h 50m (656 pages)

Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy

Started: 24 April 2013
Finished: 17 May 2013

Where did it come from? From the publishers for review.
Why do I have it? Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite authors, so how could I refuse?

An empire in
decline needs a hero to
lead them to glory.

Summary: In centuries past, Kitai was a mighty empire, demanding tribute from their neighbors to the north and west. But centuries after a military revolt shook the nation, Kitai is only a shadow of its former glory. It is still unsurpassed in the areas of art and culture, but it has lost most of its political influence and military superiority, and has ceded more territory than it cares to admit to the nomadic barbarian people in the North. Infighting and scheming amongst members of the court are common, and the emperor cares more about his extensive gardens than about the realities of life in his realm.

This is the Kitai in which Ren Daiyan has grown up. A clerk’s son who secretly longs to be a soldier, he is still a teenager when he manages to kills seven bandits singlehandedly, on the day that he walks away from his old life forever. He becomes a bandit himself, working to disrupt the worst excesses of the government and their tax collectors, but he holds tight to his dream of reclaiming Kitai’s lost lands and restoring the empire to its former glory.

This is also the Kitai of Lady Lin Shan. An only child, she was educated by her scholar father far beyond what is typical for women of that dynasty. She is clever as well as being educated, but in the court of the emperor of Kitai, cleverness can be a danger as well as a blessing, especially for a woman.

Ordinarily, the lives of these two would likely never intersect, but when war descends on Kitai from an unforseen enemy, they – and many others – will have to sacrifice much to preserve their homeland.

Review: I know I have said this, or things to this effect, every time I’ve reviewed one of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books, but ye gods, he is a wonderful writer. It’s not so much that he can turn a phrase (although he certainly can), but more that he can craft these beautiful perfect indelible scenes out of the most basic moments, and give them a power and a vibrancy and an immediacy that you would never expect. Scenes that would otherwise seem inconsequential take on incredible significance just from the way that Kay writes them, which dovetails perfectly with his themes about the minor moments that can change a life and alter the course of history.

Other things that I’ve said about Kay’s books are also just as true for River of Stars. This is not an easy book, nor a particularly quick-reading one. Kay is a very subtle writer, keeping his exposition to the barest minimum, and instead letting the reactions of his characters drive the story forward. It’s a style that can be devastatingly effective, but it also demands a high degree of attention from the reader, especially since Kay is fond of cutting away from the climax of a scene, and leaving readers to piece together what happened from what they know of the characters, and from the consequences of their actions. This could be a dangerous ploy for a writer to pull, but Kay manages it, in large part since his characters are so finely crafted that I typically felt as though I knew what they would do next, even when the text leaves it ambiguous.

River of Stars does not have the world’s quickest moving plot, particularly in the first third or so of the book. Because Kay has to set up all of his players, and their backstory, and the history of Kitai and its neighbors, it takes a while to get to the conflict of what I would consider to be the main plot. However, I wound up minding this less than I would have expected; although the first half of the book is somewhat all over the place in terms of introducing characters and setting up multiple story lines, Kay packs it with enough of those perfect wonderful shining nuggets of story that he never lost my attention. I did have somewhat of a hard timing keeping some of those characters straight, however. That may have something to do with the fact that I’m not as used to dealing with Chinese names, and it always takes me a while to remember that the first name is the patronym. It may also have to do with the fact that I listened to the audiobook – while Simon Vance does an incredible job, I can keep unfamiliar names straight more easily if I can see them than if I only get to hear them. (Also, there are a lot of secondary and tertiary characters, and listening rather than reading means I don’t get the benefit of the Dramatis Personae that Kay’s books usually have.)

Overall, though, I thought this book was great. It didn’t make me break down weeping, like the end of The Lions of Al-Rassan or some of Kay’s other works, but it did break my heart a few times. I don’t know that this book officially classifies as a tragedy, but it’s got a lot of elements that make it lean that way: when things are going so badly wrong, and they could have been salvaged many times by just one or two small changes, but people acting true to their characters meant that they never were. When you’re glad a book breaks your heart, because it would have been a lesser book if the author had chosen another path, that’s something worth reading. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This is set in the same Kitai as Under Heaven, but it’s not really a sequel; River of Stars is set centuries later, and while it mentions the characters and events of the previous book in passing, it’s not at all integral to understanding this book. This book is classified as fantasy, but apart from one encounter with the spirit world, it’s basically historical fiction, and I think it would be enjoyed by fans of either genre who like complex, mature novels with beautiful, subtle writing.

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First Line: Late autumn, early morning.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2013 10:56 pm

    I had mixed feelings about Under Heaven, but husband recently brought home a beautiful hardback of River of Stars, so I’ll have to give it a try eventually. Lions of Al-Rassan breaks my heart every time. Song for Arbonne too. Damn you Guy Gavriel Kay! Stop making me weep in public!!!

    • June 9, 2013 11:12 pm

      I don’t remember if Song for Arbonne made me cry (so… probably not) but I definitely got misty at least once during Tigana.

      I liked River of Stars a little better than Under Heaven, but I read Under Heaven while I was super-stressed-out (like, month-before-my-dissertation-was-due level of stressed out), so it’s entirely possible I didn’t give it a fair shake.

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