I am on record for not liking Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay’s first outing into medieval China. For that reason, it took me longer than usual to pick up River of Stars, which uses the same setting, albeit a few hundred years later. I shouldn’t have hesitated: River of Stars is a fine novel, carefully structured and hitting just the right emotional pitch in the last portions to keep me reading well past midnight.
An odd swing in taste, since stylistically River of Stars has many elements in common with Under Heaven, down to the same moments with characters or the narrator musing on the inscrutable ways of history that irritated me so much the last time. Yet I found this device in the later novel more fitting for the events described. In part, I found the characters more engaging, better-drawn, and (this is important), more active in shaping their own lives, though the ends of their choices are subject to forces far outside their control. Mainly, every character has a clear goal they’re trying to achieve (strangely, rarer in novels than you might think). Ren Daiyan wants to become the hero who recaptures the lost prefectures from the barbarians, and we follow his stratagems to realize that dream over the course of some two decades. Lin Shan wants to break free from gender constraints and become a poet, a respected person allowed to shape the wider world; we follow her struggles to carve a place for her that isn’t “proper” within the roles assigned to women but is, to the best of her ability, right for her. These two characters anchor the greater sweep of events around them, even while Kay takes us through the points of view of various bureaucrats, ministers, emperors, war leaders, peasants and bandits whose lives they touch. Nothing comes easy to them, we feel for their struggles, feel for them when things go horribly, horribly wrong. I never felt that connection with Shen Tai in Under Heaven, who served a similar purpose; all the characters there seemed tossed by events without any clear idea what they were after, if anything, other than survival.
The other piece to this novel’s success is the pervasive atmosphere of decay, loss and inevitable change. River of Stars centres on the fall of Kaifeng to the Jurchens and the establishment of the Southern Song dynasty; though in usual Guy Gavriel Kay fashion the names are changed: the Jurchens are now the Altai, Khitan Liao is Xiaolu, China is Kitai. I always get frustrated with these name swaps, mainly because for whatever reason, Kay in his more recent work tends to hit on historical periods I’m familiar with so I get a bit muddled.* I can also see why, and in River of Stars the argument is more compelling than in previous books: Kay brings together characters inspired by historical figures who lived generations apart, can stretch and collapse the timeline as necessary to give greater resonance to events when viewed by those characters. Instead of a century, momentous change takes place in a lifetime. In Ren Daiyan’s quest to restore Kitai, it will be diminished, and he cannot change that, but perhaps the empire that follows will be preferable in other ways that he can perceive. The tension between court and army relies on Under Heaven’s recounting of the An Lushan rebellion during the Tang dynasty, but the interplay is so much more interesting here, bolstered by characters caught up and, in the end, standing for the contradictions and greatest achievements of Song society.
There are dangers here; by shifting history to fit narrative beats and emphasize certain characters, we get a skewed understanding of how and why these things occur. That, in part, supports the idea of picking a setting “like Earth, but not”, to acknowledge history but also acknowledge the imaginative process of narrativizing it. However, there’s something more elegant and subtle going on here than a celebration of the great man theory of history, since Guy Gavriel Kay directly addresses the dangers he himself creates. I am invested in the characters on an emotional level, sure, but those constant asides that annoyed me in Kay’s earlier work do the necessary work of saying, “and, while these people seem important and mythic and will be remembered as such, in the greater scheme of things and to people outside the halls of power, they do not matter.” The choice of historical period here helps that. Ren Daiyan could have fulfilled the mythic archetype he seemed destined to become, he chooses not to because, to some extent, he realizes that fact.
River of Stars is not as beautifully written as some of Kay’s other books, like Ysabel, or as exciting as The Last Light of the Sun, or even has characters as likeable as The Sarantine Mosaic. But right now, it’s up there as one of my favourite Guy Gavriel Kay novels, because it has the most to say.
* Leading to that strange feeling of going through the Acknowledgements and seeing that I’ve read (or in the case of F.W. Mote’s Imperial China: 900-1800, own) most of the research books the author used.