There's a reason that each new fantasy novel by Guy Gavriel Kay is met with so much excitement by a core of devoted readers. These are books in which everything happens--epic battles, forbidden love, violent deaths--yet the threads of story inexorably tangle us in something that goes much deeper. Each book is a journey for the reader, compressed so that the level of intensity remains at the highest setting even in its quietest moments; and what happens on that journey can challenge your perceptions of the world and break your heart.
With River of Stars, Kay transports readers to a dazzling court and the ravages of war, with language almost impossibly multilayered in its nuance and tone, offering a series of insights that exquisitely build on each other. Even more than in previous books, each sentence seems shaped to further enhance the book's themes, recalling the craftsmanship of the man-made peony blossom that is a recurring image throughout. Here, too, emotional intensity is amped up more than ever, the shattering catharsis even more complete.
This may be at least in part because Kitai, the China-inspired setting of River of Stars, is one of Kay's richest creations to date, given that it has all the detail of the previous Kitai novel, Under Heaven, to draw upon. It is not at all necessary to read Under Heaven before River of Stars--they are set generations apart, in different dynasties, and stand independently of one another. But the outright magnificence of the Tang dynasty as depicted in Under Heaven, the corresponding nightmare of its destruction, are indispensably woven into the culture and landscape of River of Stars. Now the past is both reviled and longed-for, inextricably--for its sins and grandeur--and much of the present is defined by the complexities of this combined revulsion and yearning. The great songs of the past still carry resonance centuries later, are still celebrated; yet simultaneously the power of women and war leaders is now brutally suppressed--in memory of the concubine and treacherous war leader who are credited with the downfall of Kitai.
At the heart of the novel are two people born in the wrong time for who they are. Ren Daiyan, an outlaw from an obscure village, is driven by his desire to restore the diminished glory of Kitai through battle. In a land where warriors are poorly-trained peasants--because warriors with greater skill might threaten the sovereignty of the emperor--Daiyan dreams of leading a well-trained army to recapture the "rivers and mountains lost" from conquering tribes in the north.
Even more out of place in their world is Lin Shan, who contrary to all propriety has been trained by her father in skills assigned to men--studying the great poets, the revered art of calligraphy. Shan's intellect and skill in writing poetry mean there is no place where she fits; unlike men of similar ability, she cannot rise in the ranks at court or participate in affairs of state. Yet Shan is still determined to carve out a place for herself, rebelling against the prevailing image of women in poems as "wasting away or shedding tears on balconies in sorrow for vanished lovers." Instead in one of the most memorable lines in a book replete with gorgeous poems, she vows, "This flower will not be like any other."
The test that arrives for both Daiyan and Shan, when catastrophe threatens Kitai again, has all the spectacular force of history behind it. And even they, both strong and resolute, will be swept up and very possibly swept away.
As much as it is linked to Under Heaven, River of Stars is also a further exploration of themes raised in a book much earlier in Kay's oeuvre, Tigana. Set in a fantastical iteration of medieval Italy, Tigana explores the entwined value and peril of memory--how it can enrich a culture, give heart, while simultaneously paralyzing or contorting the present. This theme is reprised with even greater complexity in River of Stars, and carried further: when history is alchemized into memory, the way an event is collectively remembered can come to matter more, have more far-reaching impact, than the event itself ever did.
This theme is set up early on innocuously, in a joke, when a great poet is ribbed for claiming to have written a particular poem at the scene of a famous battle, only to learn later on that he was at the wrong site altogether. Yet the poem is still one of his most praised works, its lack of strict veracity absolved by the powerful evocation of its art. It is a joke that carries foreshadowing for the darkest of the events that unfold for Shan and Daiyan--and themes that inevitably circle back to us, in our own time, as the most powerful stories often do.