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Book Review

Book Cover

River of Stars (Hardback)


Author: Guy Gaviel Kay
Publisher: Harper Collins
RRP: £18.99, US $26.95
ISBN: 978 0 00 752190 6
Publication Date: 25 July 2013

The golden era for the empire of Kitai is long past, due to mistakes made by previous dynasties. Having lost its northern provinces to the barbarian Xiaolu Empire, Kitai pays tribute to keep the barbarians at bay. Had the empire had a strong emperor things may have been different, but Wenzong is more interested in building his garden than he is running an empire. The factions which rise up to fill the vacuum war amongst themselves, further weakening the empire. However, in the furthest reaches of the empire small decisions have been made which will significantly impact on the course of Kitai’s history...

River of Stars (632 pages) is a new historical fantasy novel by Guy Gavriel Kay.

This is in many ways an intricate book. Kay spends a lot of the first two hundred pages building his world and an impressively detailed accomplishment this is. Not only do we come to understand the complex politics of the empire, Kay also spends time detailing with the lives of the aristocracy, the middle classes and the peasant class. Intertwined in this overview of the empire are examples of the arts in its many forms. This alone stands as an impressive feat considering the reader will find it all quite fascinating.

The only issue I can think of in respect to the world of Kitai is that it is so obviously based on China with its main sea on its eastern side and even an impressive Long Wall. With the setting so close to that of China I kept falling out of the fictional world, wondering where the towns actually were situated in the real world.

In his afterword Kay writes that he had substantially based the book on Chinas Northern Song Dynasty, so the book sits somewhere between historical fiction and historical fantasy. That is not to say that the book isn’t well researched and Kay paints a vivid picture of the society and institutions of the Song Dynasty.

However, this also means that the penny doesn’t drop that the two main protagonists of the books, Lin Shan, an educated woman and wife of a minor imperial family member and Ren Daiyan, the son of an imperial officer actually fulfil this role. Both are introduced at the beginning of the book, following which Ren almost completely disappears, whereas Lin pops up fairly regularly. With so many characters, both major and minor to introduce the books main plot line takes some time to kick in.

Each character moment is told from the perspective of the main protagonist, in this way the individual vignettes knit together to create a complex picture which covers the empires over a period of time. In places the passage of time is not so obvious; years can sweep by between events. This does not present a problem in a story which, on one level, tells of great events, whilst on another reiterates the importance of small events. In this way the book very much uses the butterfly effect as the basis of the story.

It might sound odd, but overall, the book reminded me of Mervyn Peake’s Gormanghast, a place filled with fascinating characters, with whom we spend some time with, who ultimately fail because the structures of power, tradition and ritual reduce them all down to grist in an inhuman machine. The individual does not count, nor has as much power as the state, negating individual action. The small seed planted at the start of the story look to have the power to make monumental changes until they are dashed on the reality of their world.

This was an impressive work which attempts to encompass many more themes than are touched on here, a deeply rewarding experience.


Charles Packer

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