River of Stars: Guy Gavriel Kay

★★★★

Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that I only became aware of Guy Gavriel Kay’s books two years ago. In that time I’ve devoured several of them and two shot immediately to the top of my ‘favourites’ list. This means, however, that River of Stars is the first book that Kay has released since I became an aficionado; and the anticipation has been almost unbearable. Hard copies of the book haven’t yet been released in the UK – the British release date is in the summer – but Harper Collins have compassionately made the e-book available at the same time as those in other territories, so that we don’t all go completely mad. Looking on the bright side, this means that we Britishers get double the excitement of the release, first in e-book form and then in hard copy.

River of Stars has the same setting as Under Heaven – the courtly empire of Kitai – although it isn’t exactly a sequel, taking place three dynasties and four hundred years later, when Kitai is a more circumscribed and more paranoid state than it was when last we saw it. However, the events of Under Heaven, and even some of the characters and poetry from that book, reverberate through River of Stars. The fate of the Ninth Dynasty has become a cautionary tale, enshrined in legend, songs, and the political elite’s fear of military power. To prevent any further confrontations with the army, the politicians have neutered the military: strategic decisions are made by the emperor and his ministers rather than by generals; martial ambition and talent are looked on with suspicion; and the Kitan army has been watered down until it poses no threat to the status quo. Unfortunately, it also poses no threat to the outside world.

But the Twelfth Dynasty and its artistic emperor pay little attention to this: convinced of their civilised preeminence, they look inward, losing themselves in the charms of elegant life – poetry; the cultivation of gardens; fine calligraphy. But poets can be subversive. The creation of a beautiful garden can cost lives. And even the finest calligraphy may not reflect the innermost emotions of the writer’s soul. Besides, far to the north, on the windswept steppe beyond the border of Kitai, a new power is rising among the nomadic tribes. These men have no respect for elegant life. In their eyes, a weakened state is there to be taken. Virtually all that will stand between the Twelfth Dynasty and utter annihilation is a young man named Ren Daiyan, driven by childhood dreams of Kitai’s former glory and spurred on by the conviction of personal destiny.

I’ve said on a previous occasion that Kay’s plots often turn on apparently insignificant events which shift his characters onto new paths. These are like the pebbles that begin an avalanche, or the points changing on a railway line. In River of Stars this theme was noted much more explicitly than I remember in Kay’s other books, perhaps because we see several different characters at the crucial moments which turn them on their way, like tributaries, towards the main flow of the story. Indeed, in contrast to Under Heaven, which felt quite intimate in its focus on one man’s action, River of Stars has an undeniably epic flavour, with its clash of cultures, geographical sweep and great battles. I hasten to add, however, that despite the battles the primary focus isn’t on war. In fact, even more than usual (I felt) the emphasis is on the importance of living with generosity and humanity, even when in the shadow of conflict.

One of the aspects I’ve always enjoyed most about Kay’s books, and something which makes them stand out as historical fiction and fantasy, is that their protagonists are often thoughtful, artistic people. In past books we’ve seen troubadours and mosaicists; here we have, to my delight, a historian and archaeologist among the poets, gardeners and songwriters. Even Ren Daiyan, a gifted military tactician  is at heart a dreamer and an amateur poet. These people live with a gentle dignity that makes them immensely appealing, and even the less immediately sympathetic characters have a human edge. There are few out-and-out villains in Kay’s books (but I’m willing to make an exception here for Bai’ji and his especially unpleasant method of execution).

Throughout the book, these gifted people find themselves troubled by the thought that their work – whether poetry, collections of antiques or political strategy – may not endure. One wonders: ‘But who knew what words or deeds would last? Who made these decisions? Was surviving down the years a matter of accident as much as excellence?‘ And this struck me powerfully, partly because it reminded me of the musings of Crispin in Sailing to Sarantium: an artist burns with the desire to create something beautiful; to be remembered. The frailty of memory seems, in retrospect, to be an constant theme in so many of Kay’s books, from the troubadours of A Song for Arbonne to the fear of forgetting in Tigana. Later in River of Stars, Lu Chen offers an echo of this as he contemplates the way his poem, painted on the wall of the temple, fades in the damp: ‘There was a lesson in that, he supposed, about the aspirations of men to do something that would endure.’ I found it rather moving that Kay (unconsciously?) echoed a similar hope for endurance in his tour journal, shortly before the book’s publication date.

Considering how fond I am of strong female characters, you won’t be surprised to hear that I thought Lin Shan was a wonderful creation: gentle, compassionate, intelligent and loyal. She is one of the most thoughtful characters in the book, primarily because as a woman her physical movement is restricted by the will of the men around her. And yet, even doing nothing, Shan features in one of the most beautiful moments in the book: ‘She drinks hot, scented tea from Szechen in an autumn room lit by three lamps, crowded with ancient bronze, and she watches her tears fall into the cup.’ (Something about the precision and simplicity of the image reminded me of a fragment I’ve read by Junichiro Tanizaki in which he describes the sheen of light on lacquer.) Shan also featured in another of my favourite sections, where we see her elaborate preparations for writing a supplication to the Emperor:

She adopts the Pillowed-Wrist Position, left hand under right wrist, supporting it. Her characters are to be small, exact, not large and assertive (for which she’d have used Raised-Wrist Position). The letter will be in formal hand. Of course it will.

This could so easily risk sounding fussy, absurd, but the way in which Shan readies herself blends beautifully into the way she fortifies herself emotionally for the task. Moreover, the fact that these things are considered important is a testament to the attention given to ritual in this society: the admiration for elegance and finesse. As it is inappropriate to make reputations through martial valour, the people of this bureaucratic society have found a new way to judge a man or woman’s virtù: through their calligraphy, where its appearance is every bit as influential and important as the contents. I really must get rid of those biros and start using my fountain pen again…

I always have my little favourite sections in Kay’s books – those moments where a bit of a shiver goes down the spine – and here it wasn’t a scene so much as the simile chosen to describe a feeling: ‘like a Fifth Dynasty temple bell ringing far off, somewhere unseen, hidden beyond a bamboo grove, a stream, green hills’. For me this simile encompasses the whole glorious, elegiac, slightly mournful feel of the world in the book: a poetic echo of a greater, more splendid time. Many of Kay’s works have a similar haunted quality, focusing on worlds which are trembling on the brink of change, or already on the way to being lost. As a historian, of course, it’s no wonder that this rather beguiles me.

Yet there are moments when the veil threatens to lift, or at least to become translucent. Kay nudges us; teasingly invites us to step back for a moment and consider the act of storytelling itself. Did something really happen as he said it did? For example, take the fate of O-Yan of the Jeni. We are told what we believe to be the facts, believing ourselves ‘there’; but then Kay teases us with the idea that we haven’t had the story at first hand at all, but perhaps as a form of legend, passed through many hands. What can we believe in what we’ve just read? Have events been tweaked for dramatic effect? Kay notes, drily, ‘Storytellers do that sort of thing’. Throughout the book there is a subtle dialogue about how facts become transformed or transmuted into ‘stories’, or legends, or songs. The question about what is real and what is legend comes into play at the end and… well, all I will say is that the way the book closes is perfect.

As I said at the beginning, I’ve been waiting a long time to read River of Stars and had been rather anxious on settling down with it the first time: what if, after all this anticipation, I didn’t enjoy it? Fortunately I needn’t have worried. It is a beautiful complement to Under Heaven but also a very powerful story in its own right. It comes strongly recommended, and please do let me know what you think of it, if you read it. I must stress, as usual with Kay’s work, that you might find it shelved in the fantasy section, but it’s much, much closer to historical fiction.

Kay’s author’s note gives details of the books he consulted on the history of the Song dynasty (on which River of Stars is based, as Under Heaven is based on the Tang). One day I definitely hope to follow them up; although first I must read Bamber Gascoigne’s A Brief History of the Dynasties of China, which I bought after finishing Under Heaven and have, criminally, only dipped into so far. Any other recommendations of light history books on China – or other fiction set in the culture – would be very welcome.

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6 thoughts on “River of Stars: Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. Li Wen says:

    Lovely review.

    As a historian, you might be interested to know that just as “Under Heaven” was loosely based on An Lushan Rebellion, the main character of “River of Stars” is based on the Song dynasty general Yue Fei. The Four Great Beauties are real, and last of them was the Tang Emperor Xuanzong's beloved concubine, Yang Guifei. The drunken immortal, Sima Xian, is Li Bai; Lu Chen is also known as Su Shi or Su Dong'Po; and Lin Shan is Lin Qingzhao, China's famous female poet. Even the magistrate who befriends Ren Daiyun was based on a real person, Song Ci, who wrote the first documented case solved by forensic entomology, in his “Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified”. GGK really did his research.

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thank you for this Li Wen! Yes, I am acutely conscious of how little I know of the historical background, and I am always delighted to stumble across new correspondences between the story and reality. Your comments have thrown up lots of wonderful leads I shall have to follow in due course. 🙂

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