River of Stars

Written by Guy Gavriel Kay
Review by Ray Thompson

In his acknowledgements, Kay explains that his novel is “shaped by themes, characters, and events associated with China’s Northern Song Dynasty before and after the fall of Kaifeng” (1127). He has, however, “compressed the timeline. Although several of the characters are inspired by real men and women, the personal interactions in the novel are inventions… I find this melding of history and fantasy to be both ethically and creatively liberating.”

The inspirations for Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan, his two central characters, are Li Qingzhao, “the best-known female poet in China’s history,” and the heroic General Yue Fei, who led the defence against the Jurchen horsemen invading from the steppes, but Kay’s approach allows him the creative freedom to reshape their stories. They become not only lovers, but examples of quiet yet heroic defiance against the deeply ingrained cultural attitudes of a tradition-bound society.

The frequent shifts in focus and point of view do slow the pace of action, particularly since Kay spends time exploring the inner thoughts of a wide range of characters and reflecting upon the broader consequences of their conduct. This enables him to create a rich tapestry that highlights the problems created by rigid attitudes during a time of crisis, and to develop such themes as the conflict between duty and personal aspirations (worthy, or unworthy, or merely ill judged), the effect of chance upon events, and the role of story in the legend-building process: “Sometimes someone grinds ink, mixes it with water, arranges paper, takes up a brush to record our time, our days, and we are given another life in those words.”

This Kay has done with impressive results. Highly recommended.