A swordsman tries to change the fate of a collapsing nation. A poetess chronicles its fall. A host of politicians, from emperors to minor, overreaching clerks, all play their part in the saga of Kitai, a once-great nation weakened by centuries of civil war, in-fighting, uprisings and political gamesmanship, but it is the lives of bandit-turned-general Ren Daiyan and imperial wife with hidden depths Lin Shan that most define how we see Kitai’s story. Based in part on the final years of China’s Song dynasty, River of Stars is a poetic meditation on duty, compromise, politics and power that has an epic, historical sweep grounded in a host of intensely personal, well-realized stories.
Fans of George R.R. Martin’s popular “Song of Ice and Fire” books – or the Game of Thrones TV adaptation – who are looking to scratch that itch in the years between new books will find a lot to like here, as Kay’s book is every bit as in-depth a piece of political fantasy as Martin’s work. But Kay lacks Martin’s cynicism and his ability to stretch a narrative on over a dozen books, so while his work is in some ways more realistic, it’s also less gritty, less epic… and less obviously fantastic. While there are still hints of the mystic around the edges of the narrative, it only once bursts forth onto the page, in an event that has all the weight of mythology. Kay’s treatment of the book’s most traditionally fantasy elements is a decision that both highlights the supernatural as something truly unfamiliar and even frightening in this world, and makes the story of Kitai’s rise and fall that much more poignant.
Kay employs an elliptical, digressive storytelling style and stilted, lyrical prose that give the book an almost poetic quality – fitting, given both the setting and the importance of poets to the narrative. Because of some of Kay’s stylistic choices here (only Under Heaven shares a similar style; his older work is much more traditional), it takes a couple chapters to adapt, but once you do, the book’s odd, fascinating rhythms really help you lose yourself in the story. It’s a fascinating way to tell a story, using tangents to loop around a piece of the narrative, only to revisit the moment more fully when you least expect it, a decision that allows Kay to bring us a few great surprises (some tragic, some joyous), but that also helps build and maintain your emotions far longer than you might have otherwise. It gets you invested.
Though River of Stars falls apart a bit in the last fifty pages or so, the vast bulk of the book is very nearly a masterpiece, joining Kay’s early epic Tigana as well as ambitious later works like The Lions of Al-Rassan and Sailing to Sarantium in putting forth a very strong argument that suggests Kay as, quite possibly, the greatest fantasy writer working today. It’s smart, unpredictable fantasy storytelling with vivid prose and a world so well realized, you’ll forget at times that it isn’t real. But it wouldn’t work without characters we believed in and cared about, and in Ren Daiyan, Lin Shan, Zhao Ziji and many more, Guy Gavriel Kay gave us exactly that.
Cal is a writer, librarian and critic in Pittsburgh, PA. He has been reviewing books and graphic novels for nearly five years, contributing to read/RANT Comic Reviews and a number of other sites.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Roc Hardcover. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.