In 2010, Guy Gavriel Kay released UNDER HEAVEN, his fictionalized take on the An Shi Rebellion of Tang Dynasty China. Its lyrical, beautiful story earned it a place as one of the Ten Best of 2010 from this reviewer. Closing the book, I was unsure if anyone could eclipse what Kay had put on the page. I questioned whether he could surpass it himself. Now he has released a new novel, RIVER OF STARS, set in the same world after the passage of hundreds of years, and my question has been answered.
Yes, Guy Gavriel Kay can best UNDER HEAVEN.
Loosely based on the Song Dynasty, RIVER OF STARS finds the Kitan Empire under assault from outlaws while infighting amongst the Emperor's advisers threatens the stability of the land. The Kitan Empire has been fractured after a failed war with the northern Xiaolu. To survive now, feeling the shadow of the growing might of the Altai, old grievances must be repaired and alliances forged anew. The Emperor, however, seems to have little care for actual leadership and the responsibilities of his title. Instead, his art and his gardens draw the majority of his attention.
Among those thrust together in service to the Emperor are Ren Daiyan, a clerk, and Lin Shan, a woman whose father holds a place of distinction at court. Both face roadblocks along their road; Ren based on his lack of proper teaching and standing, Lin simply for being a woman. As the web weaves and the two are drawn together, RIVER OF STARS begins to ask more intriguing questions than are usually found in fantasy works: What must one sacrifice for the greater good? What is the cost of peace? What makes a legend? What is the effect of the road not taken?
"Yes, Guy Gavriel Kay can best UNDER HEAVEN.... RIVER OF STARS is an extraordinary work -- epic in scope, exquisite in its presentation, and engaging across all levels."
Kay is, without question, one of the greatest fantasists in the business. Though he is overshadowed by the "bigger" names, the quality of his work is often shoulders above the standard fantasy fare. In fact, those with little interest in fantasy would not be turned off at picking up one of his novels. Kay's greatest gift is the historical weight he provides all of his works, crafting a story around well-researched history. RIVER OF STARS is no different. In truth, it rises to a level above UNDER HEAVEN and really shines.
The two principal characters are perfectly crafted, and as the pages go by, you are eager to see what will become of them. It does not take much for Kay to make you gravitate towards them, to care for them. Lin, in particular, is intriguing because of the path she must take because she is a woman, one who has survived the threat of death solely based on her gender, who has grown into abilities often denied women. Her interactions with Ren do not follow expectations, and Kay's thinking outside the usual mold makes his story all the more enjoyable. That his ending is also less rigid leaves readers with a rare opportunity to explore ideas and decisions, to look at events from multiple angles. It is not a situation of "This is how it ends" but more a case of "These things happened. What do you think about them?"
It is important to note that you do not have to read UNDER HEAVEN to appreciate RIVER OF STARS. While they exist in the same world, the long passage of time between them does not make this a true sequel. The characters from the prior work are long dead. On occasion, an older event will be referenced in the new novel but nothing that would leave a reader wondering what was missed. However, I would strongly encourage the reading of UNDER HEAVEN because it is so wonderful.
RIVER OF STARS is an extraordinary work --- epic in scope, exquisite in its presentation, and engaging across all levels. It is a glorious narrative poem, relaying a period of high honor, mysticism, and a celebration of art, both as seen within the story and comprising the story itself. Kay is a well-respected writer, as he should be, but deserves far more of a readership than he has, and his name should be uttered more often by readers. Perhaps RIVER OF STARS will expand his reach.
The greatest question, though, is: What will Guy Gavriel Kay do that can possibly top this?
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on April 5, 2013