Guy Gavriel Kay is famous for his impressive blend of fantasy and historical fiction. In River of Stars, Kay returns to the realm of Kitai, a fictional empire based on Tang dynasty China that was first introduced in 2010’s Under Heaven. Centuries have passed since the events of Under Heaven and the empire has weathered numerous storms – rebellions, invasions by barbarian horde, and fractious political rivalries – and is somewhat worse for the wear. Ren Daiyan, the son of a magistrate clerk in a remote province, and Lin Shan, the daughter of a scholar, both have unusual talents and ambitions. In time, their gifts draw the attention of power, and of each other, and their lives are irrevocably drawn into events that will change Kitai forever.
Kay’s attention to historical accuracy is, as always, spectacular. The refinement and opulence of the imperial court and gardens, the delicacy of traditional Chinese arts such as calligraphy and poetry, and the beauty of the landscapes of China are all flawlessly captured. The astounding brutality and callousness of the era are presented as well, in a straightforward way that neither sensationalizes nor trivializes them.
River of Stars is a success on just about every level. The story is powerful and engaging, the characters are complex and well realized, and the greater themes of the novel such as heroism and man’s role in society are thoughtfully treated. Kay’s prose is poetic without being overwrought or melodramatic. Overall, River of Stars is joy to read.