River of Stars is the twelfth novel by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay and is based loosely on twelfth century China during the Song Dynasty. Like many of his works, Kay weaves historical names, places and events into a fictional tapestry that still retains the feel of historical work, while engaging the reader in the intensely character-driven style that makes his works so engrossing.
Nothing happens, and everything happens
It’s been my experience with fantasy lately that more and more things are becoming plot and action driven. Battles, conflicts, direct interactions seem to be the name of the game. Read any book that takes place during or around a war or invasion, and you’ll find a solid percentage of the text dedicated to the action scenes: sword fights, army maneuvers, deaths, escapes. Such makes for a very attention-grabbing read, trying to keep you involved by constantly throwing something intense in your face.
In River of Stars, the opposite is true. This is the story of an invasion, of a general rising up to bring his armies to victory against a foe that seems overwhelmingly strong. And there’s almost no action at all. Instead, Kay does an absolutely stunning job communicating the state of the action through implication and suggestion, concentrating instead on the characters. He shows you what these people are like, makes you come to know them, to understand them. And through this understanding, we need only see a few lines of dialogue or a short paragraph describing the action around the characters. Our knowledge of who they are fills in the rest.
It struck me about halfway through the book that more time had been spent discussing poetry than warfare, and that not only did this not detract from the work in any way, I found myself more deeply invested in what was going on than I would have been if this had been an action-oriented war novel. My connection to the characters made me care so much more about what they thought about the events happening off in the distance than I did about the events themselves.
Small stones make large ripples
Another common element to most modern fantasy is that the heroic protagonist and their group makes many sweeping changes to the world around them. They are larger than life, and nobody can doubt the influence their actions (and generally only their actions) have on the world around them. Kay instead presents a world where the actions of every character, even ones of obvious societal importance—generals, emperors, ministers—really feel… not so much small. What I mean to say is that each character feels like they are just living their lives, in their world, making the decisions that they would make, guided by their beliefs and the realities of their situation.
There are no obvious moments you can point to and say “This is when the hero’s destiny is revealed” or “This is when the defining moment of this character’s life happened.” Everything just happens. And it feels so smooth and natural and realistic that it pulls you in and keeps you there. Not a single solitary thing in this entire novel broke immersion, reeked of deus ex machina, or fell afoul of any tropes of lazy storytelling.
Historical fantasy’s Daniel Day-Lewis
I’ve always maintained, and will likely continue to maintain, that Daniel Day-Lewis is among the greatest actors of all time. While he doesn’t always pick roles that have a wide-ranging mass appeal, he only picks roles that meet his incredibly high standards. His dedication to research and to method acting, completely burying himself in a role in a way that few people can even really understand, is what has led to him being the only person to win three Best Actor academy awards. His rate of appearances in movies is low, only twelve films in twenty-four years, but I’ve yet to see a performance that didn’t utterly blow me away.
I include the above to really communicate what I am saying when I compare Guy Gavriel Kay to Daniel Day-Lewis. He is similarly non-prolific, with twelve novels in thirty years, and similarly dedicated to his craft in a way that few people seem to be. Each of his books contains an afterword which talks about the research conducted, works referenced, and experts consulted, and it just flabbergasts me. I’ve read his entire bibliography and not only was I not disappointed, I was hard pressed to find a single thing to complain about.
Why should you read this book?
The only reason I can think of why you shouldn’t read this book is if you just finished reading another book by Kay. These novels need some digestion time, to really sit down and think about what you just read. I’ve read several of his novels multiple times each, and the idea of reading two in a row just seems like too much. You need to relax and unwind a little with something a little lighter before you dive back into the immersive worlds Kay creates. You should read this book if you have an appreciation for expertly crafted, character-driven fantasy of the highest order; if you want to really get to know characters, to get a deep sense of them, and their place in their society and their role therein; if you want to close a book’s back cover, take a deep breath, set it down, and not even consider picking up another book until you’ve had time to just appreciate the raw artistry you’ve just witnessed. That is why you should read this book.