In a culture where Game Of Thrones is supplanting The Lord Of The Rings as the model for fantasy storytelling, the novels of Guy Gavriel Kay demand more attention. His novels, like George R.R. Martin’s, are historically based, tragic, feminist, and subversive of the accepted forms of high fantasy. Kay’s skill is in taking well-known premises, usually historical, and using them to build tragedy. Two good friends and better men get forced into fighting one another thanks to the rise of extremist religion during the Crusades, or one man falls for a powerful woman even as she conspires against all his patrons and friends. His characters are typically heroes, in that they are smarter, wiser, kinder, and stronger than their contemporaries, but they are never typical fantasy heroes in that they can change the course of history. They are subject to more powerful forces, and those forces are unkind.
For the first time in River Of Stars, Kay returns to the same geographical setting of one of his earlier novels, the China stand-in Kitai, from Under Heaven. River Of Stars takes place several hundred years after the previous novel, with the Song Dynasty taking over for the Tang Dynasty. The new novel is a standalone story-wise, but thematically, it serves as a mirror to its predecessor. In Under Heaven, a glorious empire collapsed under the pressure of its military’s power, and this weighs heavily on the Kitai of River Of Stars, itself about the rise of military power and a possible return to glory for a fallen empire. The new book also serves as something of an apology for the older one—the military leader whose choices determine the fate of the empire was a cipher in Under Heaven, but he’s the focus of River Of Stars.
The novel’s protagonist is Ren Daiyan, a martial prodigy whose life’s ambition is to reconquer Kitai’s lost northern provinces from the steppe warrior, and in so doing, return Kitai to glory. Daiyan is a typical Kay hero, hovering on the border of superhuman and merely exceptionally gifted and charismatic. River Of Stars chronicles his rise from youth to army commander, and does so in serviceable yet not particularly inspiring fashion. It’s only once he reaches the upper echelons of power that River Of Stars’ true cleverness emerges. Daiyan may be quite clearly a good man, and his intentions of returning Kitai to glory are the stuff of traditional fantasy. But in the novel’s best scene, that dream of supporting his country against the brutal barbarians of the north forces the ostensible hero to side with the rivals of his friends, for the cause of war and death.
So much fantasy is built around the idea of good people fighting the good fight, and either triumphing or failing gallantly against impossible odds seems almost necessary. Yet Kay deliberately makes his novel speak against that idea. Simply fighting against enemies may not be best for everyone, no matter how heroic the cause.
Yet as powerful as the theme is, River Of Stars can’t quite support it. Kay’s prose is certainly as beautiful and effective as ever, but the issues run deeper. His usual tricks of semi-omniscient viewpoints, switching from the past to the present to the future and back again, help create an emotional power and the impression that the story is crafted with intentionality, yes, but they also feel deterministic. Both River Of Stars and Under Heaven suffer from the same problem, where real-world events seem to dominate the novel’s story, instead of merely giving it a setting.
For example, Lin Shan, the book’s female lead, is generally a marvelous character, an intelligent, assertive woman to stand aside Kay’s best, like Jehane from The Lions Of Al-Rassan. But River Of Stars spends a great deal of its time within her point of view railing against foot-binding or comparing the official roles of women across multiple historic periods. In those moments, it’s as if she’s a 20th-century feminist looking back at the era, instead of a character who exists with her own context. River Of Stars can feel just a little too close to a book about medieval China, instead of having its own setting. It’s a respectable annoyance in that it demonstrates the amount of research required to write such a novel.
That’s only a slight disappointment due to the high standards Guy Gavriel Kay has set for himself. He’s made a career out of subverting the expectations of high fantasy, and River Of Stars’ anti-war sentiment may be the most powerful subversion he’s ever done. The novel as a whole may not always succeed, but when it does, it’s astounding.