Review by Natalie Zina Walschots for National Post

For River of Stars

Reproduced with permission of National Post.

Fantasy, science fiction, magic realism – any of the genres that can be classified as speculative fiction – are often defined (or dismissed) as being entirely about escapism. Whether a classic swords and sorcery swashbuckler or a dour time-travel parable, anything that involves elves, alien races, magic or vastly advanced technology is often regarded as an opportunity to exit the practical concerns of our lives entirely. The best fantasy, however, has always been a mirror (albeit a dark or fractured one) that reflects a contemporary concern or concept but just torqued and tinted enough that the reader has the opportunity to see those ideas afresh. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien wrestled with the horrors of the First World War and industrialized slaughter through wars between elves and orcs and men, Kay (who handled Tolkien’s work extensively at the beginning of his career, helping to edit his unpublished work, including The Silmarillion)often engages with recognizable historical periods but presents them tilted, twisted, somehow made unfamiliar and strange.

River of Stars takes place in the same universe as Kay’s last novel, Under Heaven, and returns to the Kitai Empire; whereas the last book made points of contact with historical events from China’s Tang Dynasty, this text takes place some 400 years later, and roughly corresponds to the Song Dynasty. Under Heaven looked at the events leading up to a rebellion, River of Stars returns to that empire now vast and bloated, suppurating with plots and court intrigue, and on the verge of collapse. The decline of a vast empire strikes as particularly poignant during a moment when an entire world is dealing with a global financial crisis and many powerful countries are rotting from within due to corruption and greed, but any connections to the economic trials of late are entirely natural and subtle.

The language in River of Stars is formal and poetic, the sentences laid out like layers of diaphanous fabric, becoming a solid narrative through the interplay of their layers. Kay has an elegant way of building fiction that seems more like the words are unfurling than being laid out, an organic and muscular flow. Even in moments of violence and intense action, the prose is always cool and collected.

River of Stars finds its greatest success in that it is both a vast, grand portrait of an entire culture, and also a very specific, personal story. At its heart is Ren Daiyan, the son of a civil servant who moves from dreamer to bandit to military hero. Daiyan fervently believes it is his destiny to restore the glory of the empire, a typical heroic trope, but instead of allowing his character to become an archetype, Kay is invested in keeping Daiyan profoundly human: weird, flawed and complicated. His love affair with songwriter Lin Shan, a talented and gutsy woman who saves him from a botched assassination attempt, becomes the emotional core of the novel as Daiyan consistently serves as its engine. As Shan asks, the question, “Can one man be the soul of an empire?” is posed over and over again, with a different, ever changing answer each time.

Daiyan and Shan are not the only well-realized characters in the novel; each personality in River of Stars is flawed and full of friction, awful and lovely by turns, like the Emperor who loves his garden so much he cannot see the terrible human cost of keeping it perfect. While the densely woven and ever-shifting web of intrigue is masterfully managed and often brilliantly surprising in all it’s complexities, and the sumptuous, poetic language are also highlights, it’s the connection to the characters that captures the reader’s attention, digs hooks deep into their heart, for all 600-plus pages. The setting may be a work of brilliant alienation, taking fact and making it strange, but however fantastical the events and environments, the emotional register is wholly authentic.

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