Published: April 2, 2013
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction
Pages: 656 (Hardcover)
My Rating: 4.0/5.0
In his critically acclaimed novel Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay told a vivid and powerful story inspired by China’s Tang Dynasty. Now, the international bestselling and multiple award-winning author revisits that invented setting four centuries later with an epic of prideful emperors, battling courtiers, bandits and soldiers, nomadic invasions, and a woman battling in her own way, to find a new place for women in the world – a world inspired this time by the glittering, decadent Song Dynasty.
Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.
Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.
In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars.
After having oft admired this book while perusing the bookstore and deciding that I didn’t have time to fit it into my reading schedule, I finally got the audiobook version. Of course, when I did this I wasn’t aware that, though not necessary, maybe I should have read Under Heaven first. You see, these two books are set in the same world, though many years apart. I can’t help but think I may have enjoyed River of Stars more had I understood the significance of some of the references made. But no matter, what’s done is done.
River of Stars is set in a world that is much like China, as you may have guessed from the cover, the names, or the synopsis. As a matter of fact, I recently read that it’s based off the beginning of the Jin-Song wars in the early 13th century. It’s majestic- gardens, imperial palaces, songs, poets, and war weave together to make a world realistic, with just the barest touch of the magical. The setting spans from the southernmost island where court exiles are sent to the northern steppes and the lost provinces, giving readers a variety of locations and climes to experience. These locations (of course) are a mere backdrop to the vast cast of characters presented within the pages of River of Stars.
There are truly only two protagonists in this story; however Kay gives his readers quite a lot of diversity. We get the perspectives of exiles, poets, palace officials, and soldiers to broaden the scope of the story and enhance the depth of detail. Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are very different people, but their lives collide nonetheless. Daiyan, formerly a bandit leader, wants to lead the empire of Kitai back to former glory and retake the lost provinces from their northern neighbors. Lin Shan is a girl with a man’s education and determination- unheard of in the era she lives in. I can’t even begin to explain them because they are deep.
While River of Stars is definitely a masterpiece, it does not inspire great welters of emotion. Some passages were emotional or inspirational, but I was dispassionate and felt as if I were a great distance from the story rather than in the midst of it as I usually prefer. If you haven’t read Under Heaven, you can read this as a standalone without any trouble. It’s definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of Kay’s other works or are looking to delve into the land of historical fantasy.