Under Heaven (2010), a novel set in a fantastical analogue of the 8th century Chinese Tang dynasty, Kay's enthusiasms for Chines history didn't wane. His latest novel River of Stars is set a few centuries later in the same time line. There are a few references to the earlier book, as well as a few others Kay has written, but it's not a sequel in the traditional sense of the world. Both novels can read independently, something I very much appreciate in much of Kay's work. As always with Kay, it is a beautifully written book. I would not be surprised if it ended up on many a best of 2013 list.
Several centuries after the events that led up to the Al Li rebellion described in Under Heaven, the Kitan empire is but a shadow of its former self. Fear of a strong army, loyal to its generals have severely crippled the strength of the Kitan empire. It has lost control over important trade routes and is forced to pay tribute to the tribes of the northern steppes to keep that from taking more than the fourteen prefectures they currently occupy. But the tribes are always restless and a rebellion on the steppes offers opportunities if the Kitan empire can overcome its military weakness, inspire an emperor who would rather devote his time to art than governing the realm and survive the continuous maneuvering for position to going at court.
Kay approaches this novel in more or less the same way as the previous one. There are a number of main characters but we often get to see them though the eyes of lesser characters or the narrator. Being a point of view character in this novel is decidedly unhealthy. Quite a few of them kick the bucket after a few pages. The technique to use the past tense for the male and the present for female points of view also returns, as does the tendency to tell the reader the outcome of a scene before letting it unfold. For readers who pay more attention to the structural side of a novel there is a familiar feel to it.
In a way, the plot devices are familiar too. The historical setting is clearly recognizable, with a number of characters clearly inspired by historical figures. I must admit I'm not that well versed in the history of the Song dynasty so, as usual when I read one of Kay's novels, the text promoted more than one Wikipedia reading session. Kay is not a slave to historical accuracy. He doesn't let it get in the way of telling the story he wants to tell but there is still a lot that is clearly recognizable. In broad strokes, it tells the story of the collapse of the Song dynasty under pressure from the Jurchen (a few centuries later known as the Manchu) and its eventual rebirth as the southern Song that follows. It's a fittingly dramatic event in Chinese history and Kay uses it to full effect.
What I found most interesting about the way Kay treats history is aware of the fact that history is often disputed, muddled by storytelling, myth and legend and coloured by the view of the historian. In several places there are remarks to the effect that the way this event ended up in history not quite like the way it unfolded in reality. I wonder if Kay has chosen to do this at points where there are different accounts of events or where historians disagree on the interpretation of certain sources. I do not know the history of the Song dynasty well enough to make that kind of detail out, but someone who does might find it an interesting layer in the narrative.
Where the book differs significantly form Under Heaven is in the atmosphere Kay creates. In his previous novel he portrays an empire at the height of its power. The pinnacle of civilization and culture in the known world as well as an economic and military power to be reckoned with. The radiate the kind of arrogance that comes with such power. In River of Stars the empire still sees itself as the pinnacle of civilization but is forced to employ all kinds of tricks with words to avoid the appearance of being subjugated to the northern tribes. It's a kind of desperation, a futile attempt to hold on to its former glory that saturates the book.
Another emotion that permeates the narrative is fear. The wounds suffered during the An Li rebellion clearly haven't completely healed. The empire is more afraid of its own incompetent generals than of the outside enemies that mass on its border. It's this fear that shapes the story and the live of the main characters. An empire with superior numbers and technology and a strategy that can defeat the horsemen that invade their country brought to its knees by evens centuries in the past. It's even more tragic when you realize that court intrigue contributed to the defeat of the southern Song a century and a half later.
For readers who loved Under Heaven, River of Stars is a must read. Kay once again shows what he is capable of with his trademark quarter turn to the fantastic. Maybe Kay takes a little more time than strictly necessary in some places but the sheer beauty of the prose more than makes up for that. I loved the way in which history shapes the lives of the characters and the decisions of individuals in turn shape history. It's a book that requires a bit of patience but in the end it is a very rewarding read. I'm very impressed with Kay's oeuvre as a whole and this book certainly lives up to the reputation he has built. I think I'm going to have to reserve a place for this book on my own best of 2013 list.
Title: River of Stars
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
First published: 2013