Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand

River Of Stars River Of Stars
by Guy Gavriel Kay

Supplied for review by Harper Collins New Zealand

Reviewed By: Simon Litten
Jacqui Smith

Guy Gavriel Kay is an author noted for his fantasy novels and an almost lyric style of writing, so it was with much interest that I approached his latest novel River of Stars. Much to my surprise this opus was an historical piece, dealing with a period of Chinese history with which I was not familiar, and not a fantasy drama at all.

The period is twelfth dynasty China, or the northern Song period, when the barbarian enemy on the steppe was the Khitan tribe, well before the Mongols rose to ascendancy. To a large extent Mr Kay has dramatised the period by changing the names of the leading characters and playing fancy footwork with historical interpretations. I am just not sure he has produced a novel that works. Characters enter come to front stage, have their moments in the limelight and exit. Some have several scenes. However, none feel like they capture the audience, nor that the author has invested any emotional energy in them. All are dutiful and mannered; except the barbarians, who are barbarous. There was a romance story buried in here but that was lost through duty or neglect – I wasn’t sure which and in the end the point hardly mattered.

This reader would have preferred more spontaneity and less duty. An interesting read if not vibrant. Better luck next time?

- Simon Litten

Historical fantasy seems to have become a popular sub-genre of late. Authors take a historical events or settings and add a fantasy twist. It’s simple, really, if you follow well-trodden paths to the English or Italian Renaissance, or the ever-popular Victorian period. Not so easy when you take your readers to China in the Song Dynasty, which is foreign territory to most readers, in more ways than one. It may as well be an alien planet! Except, of course, you can research it – and Kay’s research is impeccable, even if he did confuse my research by using pseudonyms for major historic characters.

The fantasy element here is subdued, and very much in tune with the cultural beliefs of medieval China, known here as Kitai. This is a place where ghosts are real, curses can have profound effects, and as for the fox spirit…. But the focus here is the history, and the people who shape events. It’s not a happy time for Kitai. The barbarians are invading from the north, and there isn’t much a decadent society, obsessed with gardens and poetry, and with court-appointed idiots for generals, can do about it. But individuals do matter, and one such is Ren. Born the son of a minor court official, he discovers a talent for war among the outlaws of the marshes. Can he save Kitai? That would be telling. Suffice it to say that this is a beautifully crafted, poetic novel, with characters you will really care about.

- Jacqui Smith

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