River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel KayRiver of Stars (Under Heaven #2) by Guy Gavriel Kay
Published: Roc Hardcover (2013), ARC, 656pg
Source: NetGalley
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fantasy

Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.

Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.

In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars. (from Goodreads)

This book is super long BUT once I actually started reading it, it flew by pretty quickly. It’s exciting, plot-wise, and it’s lovely, character and story-wise, and there’s some great stuff in it about the nature of stories and people and history. I love it when authors talk about that stuff, and about the impact of the past on the future (even the impact of the NON-past on the future, the way things could have been if something had gone a slightly different way). It’s completely self-aware and thus maybe annoying if you don’t like self-aware stories, but I liked it for this particular story. It gave the whole thing a sheen of mystical whatsit, which fit perfectly with the historical fantasy/magical realism thing already going on.

I liked that the story was about the fall of an empire, rather than a rise. I also liked that there are still heroes, and that they still try to do heroic things, but that they fail. Maybe I’m just in a depressing sort of mood, but it was NICE to see things go differently from how you’d expect them to do. Just because you’re destined to do something doesn’t always mean you’ll do it, after all.

The characters were my favorite thing about River of Stars, though. The bad guys are not monsters, but fully fleshed out people that, in another story, could very well have been the heroes themselves. The good guys, too, have flaws and troubles and difficulties. It’s a very balanced story, if that makes sense? Maybe not in gender, because there’s only one main female character compared to a dozen main male characters, but in personality and stories, yeah, it’s balanced.

Because I loved the characters so much, I was SO RELIEVED when there was a happy ending. It’s not a perfectly happy ending (see: fall of an empire), but it’s happy enough and that in turn made ME happy.

I’m so glad that this was my first Guy Gavriel Kay book. I think I got a good sense of his writing style, and of the kind of stories he tells, and I didn’t have all the pressure of “read Tigana NOW it is amazing” behind me. Now I can read Tigana and enjoy myself, instead of worrying about it being THE BEST BOOK and whatever!

If you’ve never read a GGK book before, River of Stars might be a good one to start with. If you HAVE read a GGK book (and liked it), you’d probably like River of Stars, too. It’s got action, adventure, romance, pseudo-historical stuff (parts of the story were based off the Sung empire and people living in it), lots of neat things about stories and the people who live in them (or make them), and wonderful characters.

Read: April 5-21, 2013

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