Reproduced with kind permission ofPetrichor Machine.
As the days get shorter and colder here in New England, there are few pleasures as sure to warm you up as sitting down with a good book, a dog’s chin on your knee, and a hot mug of apple cider. Sometimes, this time of year calls for something of a quiet, poignant book. Guy Gavriel Kay has long been one of my favorite genre writers (maybe one of my favorite writers, regardless of genre), for the way he uses the fantastic in subtle ways to comment on history, and the ways it might have been re-written. I just finished reading River of Stars, and it really captures so much more than you could describe by calling it a speculative fiction novel, or an alternative history novel. It’s the retelling of ancient Chinese history, but it’s also a study in myth-making, the ways storytelling impacts history, and the ways human hearts and ambitions and fears shape events, no matter how those events may change in the telling.
The book is self-aware and painstakingly crafted to build what reads like a quiet, sustained longing, filled with compassion, bravery, political intrigue, hope, love, and sadness. The plot follows a winding tale of the struggle and evolution of a dynasty, tracing the intertwining lives of a large cast of well-drawn and complex characters, as they navigate their way through playing their part in a war-stricken country. But the thing about the book that really shines above all else is Kay’s mastery of the craft of storytelling and of writing.
The narrator in River of Stars is one of my favorite elements of the book. It’s a third person, omniscient narrator, which at first blush seems distant and quiet. Poetic, if a little removed. But read past even just the first paragraph and it becomes undeniably apparent that the narrative voice is itself an illustration of the setting, and a powerful character. One of its most outstanding aspects is that it manages to be omniscient and unreliable at once, but the unreliability is what makes the story so hopeful. The tale is as much about myth-making as it is about the arc of a dynasty. The narration often undermines itself, questioning whether or not history as fact is the same as the history being told to the reader. More than once, a victory or a failure or a death has its significance questioned, wondering “what if things had gone another way?” And more than once, it is implied that maybe things did happen that other way, but only storytellers can know for sure.
The narrative voice is also reflective of Chinese poetry, using a quiet, restrained expression of things emotional and poignant to paint its stories. Guy Gavriel Kay’s poetry is scattered throughout the book as a voice for the characters, many of whom are themselves poets. The world is constructed not only of images and descriptions and of course the inevitable tropes, but most palpably of words.
Another way that Kay’s mastery of craft is working at its best is his choice of tense, depending on which character the novel is following at the time. The book is broken into sections, following various characters down their respective paths in the story.
Most sections are written in the past tense, except for those following the character of Shan, a woman who is far more intelligent, observant, and self-aware than is strictly acceptable by the standards of her time (a legit Strong Female Character!). The present tense is thought by some to traditionally be considered more feminine than past tense, and in a world built around male control, the sudden shift highlights her experience and struggle within that structure. Shan’s inability to make it into tales of history, in the same way the men of the story are able, becomes encompassed in her present-tense tale. But more than that, it becomes a part of her characterization. The present-tense narration really enhances the reader’s experience of Shan’s awareness of self and of the events of the world around her in a given moment. She becomes a representative for the moment of Now in a book about recording those moments and telling them in hindsight. Her perspective is as unique as her upbringing.
(There is also a brief, stunning moment where a male character decides to purposefully think in a more feminine state of mind (by the standards of their society) and his narration shifts to present tense for the scene. I got unreasonably excited by this, not gonna lie.)
By the end of the book, I realized that I loved the characters not only for the humans they are, but also for the process they are undergoing- metamorphosing from people just living their lives, into stories that will be told for generations. Some characters have moments of clarity about this happening despite themselves, while others are never aware of their role in what will become an epic history. You watch a man become a hero, and not in just a singular sense. There are many novels that follow the hero’s journey, but River of Stars follows that further, beyond the end of his journey and into the minds of those who outlive him, who receive his tale and are affected by the mythologies that arise from it, accurate or not. Kay’s book speaks to the differences between fact and truth, and the parts both play in the shaping of a world.
The book is sad, but it’s the kind of sad that’s more poignant than it is tragic. Sure, there are tragic events- it’s a story about war, after all- but its exploration of myth-making lends it hopefulness, by the very nature of myths and their impact on those who hear them. Every single death, whether historically meaningful or not on a grand scale, is given a great deal of meaning, even if just in speculation. I spent most of the last chapters pausing to clear tears from my eyes, which sounds over-dramatic, but isn’t an exaggeration, I assure you. (It was kind of embarrassing! I was a weepy mess!) But truly, those tears were as much for some of the characters’ fates as they were because the book had ended.
In case you can’t tell, I highly recommend giving River of Stars a read, next time you’re in the mood for some speculative fiction. It won’t disappoint you.