River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Reviewed by Indrapramit Das
22 May 2013
Early in his latest novel, River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay has one of his characters, the poet Lin Shan, ask, "But if only the one tale is told, over and over, no others at all, what will readers decide is true?" (p. 44). Here Kay reveals one of the chief concerns of the novel—the paradoxical repetitiveness and diversity of human storytelling, be it filtered through history, myth, or art. River of Stars is an epic of immense scope, covering the rise and fall of empires over decades, with many genuinely surprising twists and turns. But ultimately, it recognizes the familiarity of any human story, and so frees itself from trying too hard to avoid (or slavishly live up to) the rhythms of history and legends repeating themselves. Kay is more concerned with how you tell a story, even if it's one that’s being told "over and over." I imagine that's why he so prolifically chooses to explore different historical milieus as settings for his fantasies (this is his second novel set in this version of ancient China, hundreds of years after Under Heaven (2010)). It also explains why he tells this story through an incredibly large cast of characters, some of whom appear for a mere scene before fading back into the narrative.
The plot is unremarkable when viewed from afar, or in cover copy which hints at easy exoticism (boasting that the setting is based on the "glittering, decadent Song Dynasty") that thankfully isn't present in the novel. Despite its ambition and length, and the clearly painstaking research behind it, River of Stars is never showy. This even though its narrative contains war, romance, court intrigue, rising underdogs, ghosts, fox spirits, and a growing "barbarian" threat (the Xiaolu tribesmen in the north, based on the Jin Dynasty) pushing up against a slowly declining empire (the Twelfth Dynasty of Kitai under the Emperor Wenzong, based on China during the Song Dynasty). All undoubtedly familiar to anyone who has delved into any number of stories from fiction and history, myth and legend. But the novel resonates because of its consistent recognition that it is inhabited by humans repeating history that has already repeated a thousand times, and its confidence that their story is still worth telling.
Any historical period, any story of any major figure, can appear generic when told in broad brushstrokes (as I've done above in summarizing). Kay knows this, and makes sure River of Stars always come back to being about the individual people in its sprawling history, about the details, the small moments that linger between the momentous ones—like the intricacies of fine calligraphy coming into view under a looking glass—because it’s the different individuals in human stories that make them unique, that make our tales diverse despite the overarching cyclical repetition of history and fiction. As a soldier in the novel observes, "Men were so varied. . . . Men and women. How could anyone claim to understand another person? Who could read a soul?" (p. 501). Artists, I suppose, could make such a claim, and Kay does his very best work reading the souls that populate his world.
Many of Kay's characters are based on historical figures, again bringing to the fore the hall of mirrors that is human narrative, seamlessly connecting across fact and artifice, history and legend. Two of the main players are Lin Shan, a woman who dares to break the social conventions of her era to carve out her own path (through poetry and calligraphy, normally reserved for men), and Ren Daiyan, an altruistic bandit, expert archer, and swordsman, who goes from humble beginnings to greater things. On the surface—generic, well-worn arcs for characters to take. But to know that Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan (not to mention several other characters) arose, via a very long and tangled chain of storytelling, from real people—the poet Li Qingzhao and the military general Yue Fei—who centuries ago actually lived these arcs we now find so generic, is to know the poetry of what Kay sees in history and story.
Li Qingzhao and Yue Fei didn’t follow the exact paths of their alternate-world counterparts born in the head of a white Canadian man in the twenty-first century. For one thing, they never met as Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan do in the novel. But, as another poet says to Lin Shan, "even if we alter details we may aspire to deeper truths" (p. 44). Today we may see people like Li Qingzhao and Yue Fei from the perspective of gods looking down, seeing entire lives, love and loss and beauty and tragedy compressed to chapters in a textbook or paragraphs in a Wikipedia entry. But art can make these lives flare, however briefly, in our minds, like the "tail-stars" of meteors across a night sky (an image of the ephemeral on a cosmic scale that multiple characters reflect on in the novel). Kay never lets the reader forget that, by making each and every one of his point of view characters count in some way. He even draws attention to this in the text:
Small events can be important in the unfolding, like a pleated sail, of a world. The survival of an emissary, say, or his drowning on a ship in a sudden summer storm.
But sometimes such moments do not signify in the sweep and flow of events, though obviously they will matter greatly to those who might have thought their lives were ending in the rain and wind, and for those who love them dearly and would have grieved their loss. (p. 315)
Not only are Shan and Daiyan wonderfully drawn characters, so is everyone else in the story, no matter how significant or insignificant. Not every character is as complex or rounded because of the small space given to many of them. But each one's worldview is explored with such balanced, unbiased attentiveness that empathy is always within reach of the reader, even when we're in the heads of bloodthirsty warlords or unrepentant assassins. Every action holds a weight that has the capacity to be surprisingly moving or tragic, because we feel like we know the aspirations and fears behind them. By the end of the novel, Kay's evident mastery over plot and character is nothing short of astonishing. In six hundred plus pages, not a word of this novel feels gratuitous, and Kay's lyrical prose retains a sense of contemplative calm even in the midst of brutal, heated battles, sieges, and ambushes.
River of Stars is built around the notion that there is no absolute truth when telling stories—only emotional truth, only the reality of people reacting to the world and to each other. In this way it tells a story that has been told "over and over," but from so many differing viewpoints that it seems to encompass any and all stories, as Lin Shan might have liked. Kay might well have set his epic in an alternate version of ancient China because, even though the details might be different, it's no more or less "true" than a historical account of a land long since gone. The "true" Song and Jin Dynasties and their people only existed for a brief moment on a geological and cosmic scale, and our recollections and records and stories are but attempts to circumvent the passage of time. Kay succeeds in honoring the memories of the people who existed in that vanished world by creating a deeply respectful simulacrum of the latter, in which even the most maligned, hated person is acknowledged as human, and vital to the shaping of history we now take for granted.