Kitai, during the Twelfth Dynasty. Several centuries after a devastating civil war that left half the population of the empire dead and its armies disbanded, the empire has still not fully recovered. Soldiers and generals are mistrusted, the fear of another rebellion overwhelming. When Kitai is drawn into a civil war amongst the barbarians of the steppes to the north, their lack of military preparation will lead to disaster. For Ren Daiyan, a young outlaw-turned soldier who hungers to reclaim the Fourteen Prefectures lost to the barbarians decades ago, the chaos will be an opportunity to rise far.
River of Stars is Guy Gavriel Kay's twelfth novel and the second set in a lightly fantasised version of China. The setting being reflected this time is 12th Century China during the Song Dynasty, and specifically the events surrounding the Jurchen/Liao civil war and China's unfortunate intervention in that conflict (motivated by China's desire to reclaim its sixteen lost prefectures) which backfired quite spectacularly.
River of Stars is a self-contained novel but a few oblique references to the events of Under Heaven will resonate more for people familiar with the earlier book. Indeed, whilst being stand-alone in terms of plot and character, River of Stars's themes resonate more strongly when contrasted against the earlier book. Under Heaven was about an empire at the height of its power and River is about the same nation in what some might term decline. The excesses and dangers of the former empire that resulted in over thirty million deaths are also made clear, and make the current nation cautious as a result. If wars and conflicts (real and fictional) stem from often forgetting the lessons of history, River of Stars is about learning from those lessons, perhaps to the point of over-caution.
With Ren Daiyan (loosely based on the real General Yue Fei) Kay has created what initially appears to be a standard heroic protagonist. He is a young, callow youth with a supreme talent for archery and military strategy who grows up to become a leader of men and a national hero when he wins an important, morale-boosting victory in an otherwise disastrous campaign. Yet Kay is not interested in regurgitating Joseph Campbell. Daiyan is more complex than he first appears, his own belief in his own destiny (bolstered by a confrontation with a fox-spirit entity in the novel's only notable magical/supernatural episode) having to be tempered with what is best for Kitai, as Daiyan is - oddly for a former outlaw - a true patriot. The reaction of the Imperial Court to Daiyan's military adventurism is something that I think a lot of readers will find frustrating or even infuriating, but it's also fascinating to see how the court has learned from the lessons of the past and fears anything to prolong war and thus increase the power of the military (and again, it is based on real history; Yue Fei faced much the same opposition after he won a series of significant victories). Ultimately this conflict, between war and peace and between soldiers and governors, lies at the heart of the novel and though our sympathies may be best-won by Daiyan, the point-of-view of the emperor and his advisers is also presented with conviction.
Daiyan's story is only one part of the story. On the other lies Lin Shan, a female poet and writer (loosely based on Li Qingzhao) during a period when women are not expected to pursue such tasks. This wins her a certain notoriety at court and a difficulty in winning female friends, but brings her to the attention of the emperor. Refreshingly, this story sets up a cliche (a woman cutting her own path in a sexist world) which the author then refuses to indulge in. Shan's deportment is unusual for her culture, but she is not persecuted for it and ultimately wins respect and appreciation. However, Kay does use her to reflect on some of the less progressive elements of the period for Chinese women (such as being forced to wear hobbled footware) and muse on how this period was less free and open for women than the preceding one in Under Heaven. Kay also uses Shan's storyline to explore issues such as sexuality and the power of myth and story versus the reality of history.
River of Stars (*****), like so much of Kay's work, is a novel that moves between being bittersweet, triumphant, tragic and reflective. It engages with a variety of themes against a backdrop informed by real history and is told with flair, passion and elegant prose. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.