Friday, 4 September 2015

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

This is a weird review to write, in a way. Because if I ran into this book by just about any other author, I'd probably be falling all over myself right now. However, this by Guy Gavriel Kay, and Under Heaven was just an astounding achievement of a book, and I don't think River of Stars is quite as good. Don't get me wrong - River of Stars is very, very good. It is merely great instead of a masterpiece.

So that makes the review a little difficult. I really this book very, very much. But while I don't think I'm going to get overly nitpicky, it just doesn't feel like it quite balances on the knife's edge as much as Under Heaven. These are the perils of really loving an author. You then compare each book to every other book. (I think the only one I haven't read yet is Lord of Emperors.)

What I do really very much enjoy is the exact setting. This is a kingdom, an empire in decline, a fantasy variation of the Chinese Song Dynasty. It is set 400 years after Under Heaven. Officially, this is merely a short hiatus in the glory that was the previous dynasties, but for anyone paying attention, power has been lost, and is not going to be regained unless something changes, drastically. And even then it may be too late.

That setting, that elegiac sadness for what was and will probably not be again, is very compelling. In that world, an emperor is protected from knowing what is actually going on by his advisors. Would he have governed better had he known? Perhaps, perhaps not. A woman poet floats on the outskirts of the imperial world, an anomaly only barely tolerated. A young man becomes a bandit unexpectedly. Lives intertwine in unexpected ways.

These are people of restraint, almost all of them. (The bandit perhaps a little less so.) They know how to hide what they feel. They work behind the scenes. They watch as vagaries of fate ruin the best laid plans, those plans that should have worked. And of course, sometimes restraint fails, and that is even more interesting, laying bare those moments when what has been hidden must be shown. The contrast is amazingly well done.  But Kay layers in an extra layer here -  it's even more compelling when you want restraint to fail and it succeeds. To be able to capture that on the page is quite a feat.

That sense of quiet, of words not spoken, of what happens when form becomes more important than content, but when content cannot be denied either. These are all aspects of the book I liked very much. The characters themselves have a quiet dignity that is nonetheless shot with tension.

So, why isn't it quite as good as Under Heaven? I think perhaps because it didn't have that "of course" moment that the previous book did, that exquisitely painful moment when it became perfectly, blindingly, horribly obvious what was going to happen next, because it must. There are moments approaching it, but none quite as good.

The ending is ambiguous, and I support that choice wholeheartedly. This is one of the best books I've read this year.

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