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Book Review: River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

A sequel in terms of setting and history, if not character or plot, River of Stars sees Guy Gavriel Kay return to the Chinese-inspired world of Under Heaven. It’s a book that can be enjoyed by new readers as a standalone volume, but one which holds added significance for readers already familiar with the first.

As a fan of Kay’s work, and someone who thoroughly enjoyed Shen Tai’s journey through the dying days of the Tang Dynasty, I was quite curious to discover how Ren Daiyan’s adventures in the Song Dynasty might compare. Aside from a shared history, the two stories couldn’t be more different. While the first was a story of an empire at its height, full of luxury, decadence, and self-indulgence, as told through the eyes of a noble young man nearly overcome by his fortune, River of Stars is the story of an empire suffering through its own decline, as told through the eyes of a young outlaw struggling to find his place in the world.

Even if you aren’t familiar enough with what has come before to recognize the little tidbits and snippets of news regarding characters and events from Under Heaven, there’s a feeling of melancholy here – a sense of remorse for the lost days of glory – that is inescapable. Along with that comes a significant amount of foreshadowing, almost to the point of implying a kind of inescapable destiny on the part of the narrator. Whereas we never really knew what to expect should Shen Tai ever reach the Emperor, we can see all to clearly where Ren Daiyan’s choices are destined to lead him. With this second tale, it’s less a matter of trying to seize one’s own destiny, and more a matter of trying to escape it.

The language here is, once again, beautiful in its poetic flow. It’s a heavy story, and not one to be breezed through in a few sittings, but also one that’s very easy to become lost in, constantly seducing you into reading just one more chapter. The style is appropriately evocative of the culture, but still retains that literary flair for which Kay is known so well. In terms of narrative, however, River of Stars is subtly different from Under Heaven. There’s less immediacy to the tale, and more of an omniscient narrative voice this time around. We still get shifting POVs, often putting us in the heads of characters to whom we become attached only to never see again, but those are interspersed with an omniscient, third-person POV. Fortunately, Kay doesn’t rely too heavily on that voice, keeping the story intimate and personal.

As far as the characters go, Kay actually surpasses himself here. Ren Daiyan, as unlikable as he often may be, is a fantastic protagonist. He’s a flawed young man who grows and develops significantly throughout the course of the novel. He surprised me on several occasions, committing himself to courses of action that initially seemed the wildest of whims, but which justify themselves later on. Lin Shan, a young woman described at one point as “the clever one, too tall and thin, overly educated for a woman – a discredit, it is widely said, to her sex” is a sort of co-protagonist, one with her own distinct story arc that nicely intersects that of Ren Daiyan. She was one of those characters I expected to drift away from early on, and was pleasantly surprised by how much of a role she had to play in events later on.

Kai Zhen is another of those sympathetic antagonists that Kay crafts so well, a character who is selfish and cruel, but also quite vulnerable and too easily swayed by the women around him. He’s an entirely distasteful gentleman that you want to hate, but that hatred is tempered with a significant amount of pity . . . and, at times, even a bit of admiration. Speaking of the women around him, Tan Ming, the concubine who so cleverly escalates herself to becoming his wife, is a richly painted woman of opportunity whose role in the story ends far too soon. Tuan Lungis is another character whom we part ways too soon, but it’s interesting the ways in which he touches Ren Daiyan’s life at key moments. Sun Shiwei, the assassin who makes such a brief, yet pivotal appearance, is one character I felt was used perfectly – as much as I would have liked to see more of him, the brevity of his role is entirely appropriate to his profession.

I wrote in my review of Under Heaven that I was actually reluctant to read River of Stars, since it was all but unimaginable that an author could manage to capture such lyrical magic twice in a row, but Kay has done just that. It’s another long story, better paced than its predecessor, and driven by a slightly stronger protagonist. If it lacks some of the subtlety of the first, it certainly eclipses it in terms of demonstrating how seemingly insignificant, very personal choices can conspired to change the course of history.

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