Guy Gavriel Kay has been one of my very favorite fantasy authors for years. When I first started reading his books, they seemed to fly under the radar for most other fantasy fans, and a new book by him was always a treasure. They’re never very heavy on the fantasy, but usually have a huge amount of historical influence with just a touch of mysticism. I really love this mix, because the historical backgrounds are immensely appealing to me while Kay’s ventures into fantasy allow him to create stories that resonate and have meaning. Though River of Stars is one such book, it won’t sit amongst my favorites of his works.
Set hundreds of years after Under Heaven, River of Stars is based loosely on the period of wars that separated the Northern Song dynasty from the Southern (thank you Wikipedia as this period was completely new to me). We follow two main characters through the outcome of the wars; Lin Shan, a female poet who stands out against her contemporaries, and Ren Daiyan, a general who rises to greatness.
This book is truly a book about myth-making and how ordinary people who commit a few great deeds, or who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they think is best, pass into legend. There is a story, of course, and it’s a good one, but Kay’s writing is incredibly introspective and he spends a considerable amount of time examining what’s happened to events in their retelling. This is so extensive that the ending of the book itself isn’t concrete, letting readers make what they choose of the myths (or not). The downside of this is that he frequently foreshadows, blatantly, what’s going to happen next – the text is so self-referential that there isn’t space for surprises or suspense.
Kay’s writing is always beautiful but in this far more than any of his other books I noticed how very slow it is. Characters spend small eternities thinking and considering what has happened to them and what they might choose to do next – how their seemingly small decisions can have major impacts. It takes a very long time for the two protagonists to meet, even longer for what seems inevitable to actually occur. It’s been a long while since I read The Lions of al-Rassan or Tigana but I definitely don’t remember feeling bogged down in the same way. Every word is well-placed, but I never felt called back to this book.
Would I still recommend River of Stars? Probably. It’s a beautifully written book, very evocative of this period in China despite its slight separation as a fantasy, and very thoughtful. It’s just worth preparing for it to be a slower read.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.