Sunday, August 27, 2017

Book Review: River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Several years ago, Guy Gavriel Kay published Under Heaven, a book inspired by the Tang dynasty of China. I believe it was my first time reading Kay's work and it was impressive. With River of Stars, Kay returns to the same setting, but now several hundred years later to a Kitai reminiscent of the Song dynasty. My understanding of Chinese history may be limited, but that didn't stop me from enjoying this haunting tale of the fall of an empire.

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
This book ended up hitting far deeper than I expected. My previous experiences with Kay's work has shown them to be powerful character-driver stories with a certain sad beauty to them and River of Stars is no exception. This book is about the Kitai Empire, modeled after China during its Song Dynasty, with its decadent lifestyle and the troubles that befall it. While the characters are decent, they are overshadowed by the idea of Kitai and end up like pawns in a great game whose actions are drops in the coming waterfall. Regardless, I enjoyed reading of their lives and cheered them on as they faced insurmountable odds.

With such a strong focus on the history of the empire, the plot's sense of time is somewhat distorted. At the start, we spend a chapter in intricate detail for each of the main characters. But each subsequent chapter flies through time as we speed past their youth and development. Time slows down once we reach the pivotal events, but it cements the idea that this is a story about history and legends and the players in it. Despite this it ends up working quite well. You get to see the both the characters in their present day, reminiscing about how things were centuries ago, and we also get to see flash-forwards of how certain things end up as in the decades to come. The ending is quite interesting and feels extremely appropriate given the themes of the book, though it may disappoint some readers.

Character-wise, we follow several main characters, chief among them Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan. I was quite interested to learn that they are inspired by real figures of the time- General Yue Fei and Li Qingzhao. There are also plenty of notable secondary characters, such as Zhao Ziji, Hang Dejin, the Lu brothers, and the Emperor. The characters feel legendary, which is not always a good thing. For example, Daiyan is an excellent fighter, especially with a bow, but he comes off as invincible and we don't get a sense of progression to his character. The characters do grow and change, but it's very subtle and pales in comparison to them as legendary figures of history.

Setting / World Building
The setting of River of Stars is the highlight of the novel. The story revoles around Kitai, an empire modeled after ancient China. It is currently in it's Twelfth Dynasty, a shell of its mighty days during the Ninth Dynasty. Due to barbarian incursions, they've had to cede their northern lands to the barbarian hordes as well as give them yearly tribute. This is a constant source of shame for the people of Kitai and a central element in the plot. Kitai keeps remembering its glories of a few centuries ago, but forgets that its armies and wealth are no longer what they once were leading to further and further embarrassments. This sets up a contrast between the elite, such as the emperor and the ministers, who believe they can achieve anything, and the peasantry who suffer under them. The former devote themselves to art and history, the later turn to banditry and open rebellion.

North of Kitai is the Xiaolu empire comprised of steppe nomad tribes. The Xiaolu have started to emulate Kitai, calling themselves an empire and building cities. They own lands formerly belonging to Kitai and you can see some of the melding of cultures as they adopt aspects of Kitai. However, the tribes that comprise the Xiaolu are not all in check and their turmoil quickly escalates as the story progresses.

While this story is set in a fictional world mirroring ancient China, I could not help but see the parallels between it and today's America. There are many moments when wise characters will remark on the decadence and flaws of their empire and how good men and women are downtrodden by cultural beliefs and incompetent rulers. The ambitions of those few in power help bring about the fall of Kitai. Its easy to see how that can translate to our times. In contrast, however, Kitai fears its own army and commanders whereas in the US, our leaders seem to revere the military. In the end, it was interesting to see and read about a fictional country based loosely on a nation that itself has thousands of years of history.

Final Thoughts
Like most of Guy Gavriel Kay's work, this book keeps you thinking deep thoughts. In this case, I wonder at the nature of history and legends and how individuals make ripples that bring lasting change to countless others. It is a beautiful book, tinged with sadness and regret. Despite the fictional setting, I read it at what feels like pivotal moments in our own history, which perhaps colored how I viewed the story and its characters.

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