Recent Reading: River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

I knew RIVER OF STARS would be broad-scale and epic. But I was in the mood for something like that, after reading one or two short, fluffy books.

I also knew it would be really, really well-written and beautiful. Again, I was in the mood for that.

But I didn’t realize it would be a tragedy.


RIVER OF STARS is set in a land and era inspired by the Song Dynasty of China. Those of you who know one Chinese dynasty from another would no doubt have realized that RIVER OF STARS was going to be a tragedy. Me, I just know that there were a lot of Chinese dynasties, but I don’t know their order or main events, so I didn’t realize this.

Despite the beauty of the writing and the story’s excellent, sympathetic protagonists, I was forced to maintain an emotional distance through the whole novel, because the story of a great nation brought down by barbarians, unnecessarily, because of the sheer vanity and unbelievable incompetence of its leaders was just painful to read about. Kay does not do grimdark, so fortunately the reader is spared intimate, detailed descriptions of the pillage and destruction. But still.

I know that from time to time in the real world a great nation really does just step over the edge of a cliff, apparently voluntarily, and plummet down into ruins and flames. I know that the utter incompetence and vanity and greed and blind commitment to unbelievable stupidity of those at the top can shove a great nation right over the edge, even if the great mass of people are trying to claw their way back up. It happens. I know that. But it is still painful to watch those events unfolding. And to see that at the end, the new Emperor is just as bad as the old — ruled by fear, ready to throw his own people to the wolves and betray the one man who saved what’s left of the Kitai Empire . . . really. It’s painful.

I would gladly nominate RIVER OF STARS for 2013 awards. It is a brilliant novel. But I will also give it away, because there is no real chance I will ever want to re-read it.

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6 thoughts on “Recent Reading: River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay”

  1. Eeep! Now I am very glad I didn’t manage to get into this one and set it aside. Not at all what I could take at the moment (or possibly ever??). Under Heaven was a bit heavy at points, but there was ultimately SOME hope to it.

  2. Yes, it wasn’t as though UNDER HEAVEN was perky and cheerful, exactly, but it was basically fine. You can close the book with a feeling that things have more or less worked out acceptably for the protagonists and for Kitai.

    The protagonists in RIVER OF STARS do survive . . . probably . . . I think . . . but even that is ambiguous. The nobility of the gesture Ren Daiyan makes at the end is important. Still, the ruin of Kitai is not very ambiguous at all, though one can see hope for the future, I guess.

    Plus I have a special revulsion for Emperors who deliberately betray their own people — not that failing the nation through horrific incompetence is much better.

    Anyway! Yeah, not my favorite, even though it IS beautiful, too.

  3. The ambiguous ending was my least favourite part of the novel. I felt that Ren’s self-sacrifice was the only fitting ending. Throwing in a “or maybe they lived happily ever after” option reduced the impact of the book for me.

  4. Cheryl, I didn’t think of it that way at the time, but I think you’re right. The loyal-unto-death statement *was* lessened by that ambiguity.

  5. IMO the ambiguity was foreshadowed by a lot of foreshadowing along the lines of ‘the shaman saw this boy would be great’ and then the boy gets killed that night. That’s the one that sticks in my memory but there were quite a few other bits along the same lines. That all will be ambiguous and prophecy can’t be counted on.

    I think the author was working on the limits of extraordinary people. They can’t make intelligent, wise rulers out of culturally blinded cowardly men. UNDER HEAVEN gave us an extraordinary man whose mere presence and existence shifts the powers, and who never wanted to do so. RIVER gives us one who has to move them to succeed and they refuse to be moved.

    I also noticed that Ren is sure, but we never get a numinous event confirming his surety. The fox spirit accepts what he says, but doesn’t seem to know. Ambiguity again.

    That said, I’d have preferred a clear death for Ren, too. It would have been cathartic.

  6. Elaine, yes, “tries to move powers and they won’t be moved.” This may be the only prophecy I’ve ever seen in fiction that didn’t come true.

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