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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

“River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “River of StarsHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read FBC’s Review of “Under Heaven

I came to Guy Gavriel Kay's work through his historical fantasy novels. He has some novels out in other genres as well, including a book of poetry (Beyond this Dark House), and he helped Christopher Tolkien compile The Silmarillion.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that Kay is the greatest fantasist of our generation. You can tell he's a poet from the incredible sense of pace and lyrical prose; some authors misuse rhetorical repetition and sound pretentious, but never Kay. A whole book of his can read like a poem, and River of Stars certainly did. He has an understanding of what isn't said, the spaces between things, the moments where everything can change, or nothing. There are a number of poems within the story itself, too, and while normally I don't think it's a wise approach to try to write the supposed great art that defines moments of a story, he can pull it off.

I'm still reveling in the post-read trance, but I think even with time this will prove to be among my favorites of his works, along with The Lions of Al-Rassan and the Sarantine Mosaic.

Too few fantasists—though increasingly more, the last few years—work with the history and mythology of places besides Europe. Kay worked with China's Tang dynasty in Under Heaven, and he now returns to the same world, about 400 years later, to approach the Northern Song dynasty before and after the fall of Kaifeng. As always, the depth of his research helps him evoke the mood vividly, and the characters, the story, grow out of that.

Those familiar with the history of the period may recognize characters inspired by General Yue Fei and the famous poets Su Shi and Li Qingzhao. The Li Qingzhao-inspired character is one of the most fascinating characters I've read, and she's a fascinating female character to boot. There were many characters I loved in this book, some whom earlier on I didn't expect to.

I'm not an expert on Chinese history, yet even when I could see the shape of how events were moving, the journey and Kay's treatment of it made all the difference. You may think that knowing the history means you will already know the plot, but the plot isn't really the point, and this is one of those books that really reminds me that plot and story are not the same.

There are references to events and characters in Under Heaven, which I enjoyed, but River of Stars isn't a sequel, and it stands fully on its own. I enjoyed this book, in particular its pacing, a lot more than the last. It's hard for me to quantify how much I enjoyed River of Stars, but I'll be thinking about this book for a long time.

I would recommend digesting River of Stars in multiple sittings, because, while riveting, it's also not a light read. For a while, though, it was easy to find stopping places, because there are a lot of POV shifts. It took me a couple hundred pages to get used to the introduction of so many, especially from characters we were never going to see again, and new POVs continue to pop up throughout the whole book. In the broader context of the novel, I appreciate them, but they did frustrate me for a time. Only the first few paragraphs of each, though; Kay doesn't need longer than that to pull me in.

The beginning felt more like an introduction to Kitai (analogue-China) than to the story, setting the stage for a much later time period than Under Heaven for those of us who read that book, and giving us a sense of how thinking and perspectives of the time have changed and shifted. From the beginning, though, I was struck by how Kay seems to switch between narrative modes, going between character POVs and pulling back for a more universally omniscient voice. I thought it might become jarring later on, but it never did. I loved it, particularly in light of his exploration in this book about the differences between story and history.

There are so many things going on in River of Stars, and I don't want to spoil anything with specifics. The author raises so many questions without giving the answers, but considering the possibilities thoroughly. Teaching how to think, maybe even like Teacher Tuan. He explores the price of peace, and security; what defines civilization, in communication, records, and accumulated learning, in the dichotomy of the arts and warfare; how sometimes small occurrences can shape the future, and sometimes they really are random happenstance; the value of life, or a life; paths not taken, futures cut off, what is and what could have been and the impossibility of knowing anything for certain except when somehow, inexplicably, you do; how legends are made, how an invented story can sometimes be truer than history, and sometimes not.

I love how the ambiguous endings can be interpreted so many ways, that Kay has even outlined the ways, really, and left it to the readers to think about the story arcs and what they say about us. Because writers do things like that sometimes.

NOTE: River of Stars will be published in North America on April 2, 2013 via Roc/Penguin Group. The UK edition will be published July 18, 2013 by HarperCollins UK.


Unknown said...

Thanks for the great review.

I was suprised by your 'don't read in one night' advice--I had not even considred doing that!

How many pages do you generally read in a night--this book seems a little long to knock of in one day...

Casey said...

And I should have known better when I picked up the book! I usually read books in one sitting (mostly because, once I'm engrossed, there are few forces on earth that can make me put them down), and 400 pages is a comfortable single-evening read for me. Which is why I kept being surprised when I would devote more than my usual time and mental energy to this book, feel like I was digesting it at a good pace, and then realize I hadn't made a whole lot of numerical progress through the pages. =)


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