River of Stars - Guy Gavriel Kay 4.5 Stars. Review also posted at The BiblioSanctum

Because I've read and enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven, I became intrigued and very excited when I first found out about River of Stars. Set in the same "universe" and timeline but approximately four centuries after the events of the first book, this isn't truly a sequel and can definitely be read as a standalone. Still, in my humble opinion it wouldn't hurt to read Under Heaven first; like I said, I thought it was a good book, but it also gives more insight into the setting and a deeper understanding of the people's sorrow in River of Stars for their once powerful empire with strong leaders that has gone soft and in decline.

It's no secret that Kay is one of my favorite authors when it comes to historical-fantasy. One of the reasons is that his stories which are often analogues of real places set in real historical periods, and in many cases infused with very powerful messages and themes. Set in a world inspired by Song Dynasty China, Rivers of Stars is no exception.

I find it difficult to just present a description of the novel, because that simply wouldn't do the book any justice. On the surface: Altai barbarians from the northern steppes invade Kitai, taking advantage of a weak emperor whose decadence and lavish spending has emptied the treasury and run the empire into the ground. A young boy grows up to become an Outlaw of the Marsh, then goes on to become one of the greatest commanders the Kitai army has ever known. An educated young woman ahead of her time changes the world with her songs and poetry.

River of Stars is about all that but also so much more; because of the way Kay writes, the book is almost like a work of art. His strength has always been his way with words, and I swear his writing gets more beautiful every time I pick up another one of his books. Reading this was like reading a book of poetry. And while I don't deny that his kind of prose can get a little tedious after a while, that's okay too, because I just put it down when that happens and pick it up again later. I think novels like these are just meant to be savored, anyway; there's really no rushing through Guy Gavriel Kay books.

His dialogue writing can be very subtle too, which is actually quite appropriate for this story in which so much unfolds within an imperial court of secrets and intrigue, at a time and in a place where saving face is everything and what you say (or don't say) can get you killed. While Kay can definitely tell a story, his stuff is probably not what you'd turn to if you want a rip-roaring book of fast-paced adventure or nonstop action. For example, though there is certainly no lack of battles in River of Stars, I find many of them are only described after the fact. Rather than the actual fighting, we often see only the results and the aftermath.

And I think that is the point of the book, really. One of the themes in River of Stars is how a single person can shape your life and bring you to places you never thought possible, how the decisions or actions (or the destiny) of someone can ripple through history to affect legions or even change the face of an empire. The happenings behind major events are meticulously peeled back, examined from different angles, to show the significance of the repercussions that can be felt for generations.

It's another reason why it was hard for me at times to tease out a real clear thread of a plot while reading this. The story is told in so many layers, and not always linearly, filled in with many narratives during the past, present or even future. Everything is woven together to form a whole in a very impressive way, cementing the idea in my mind of Guy Gavriel Kay as a true artist.