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Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest fantasy brings an ancient empire to life

Canadian fantasy fiction author Guy Gavriel Kay in his Toronto home in 2010: His new book is “River of Stars.”

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

River of Stars
Guy Gavriel Kay
Viking Canada

Ren Daiyan's life changes in a moment. Barely 15 years old, Daiyan is given to secluding himself in a bamboo grove and dreaming of returning Kitai to the glories of its past as he practises with a wooden sword or the bow his teacher gave to him.

Conscripted to guard an imperial sub-prefect travelling to a nearby town, the quiet, solitary boy skilfully defends the magistrate from a group of outlaws who beset their party on the road, killing seven: "It wasn't a worked out, deliberate thing; he couldn't say any planning or calculation went into what happened. It was a little frightening, in truth."

Rather than returning to his old life, with its limited future, Daiyan steps off the road and disappears into the marsh from whence the outlaws had come, unaware that his actions that day would ripple outward to change the world.

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Daiyan is one of the two pivotal characters around which River of Stars, the glorious, immersive new novel from Toronto writer and World Fantasy Award winner Guy Gavriel Kay, revolves. Mirroring the reality of Song Dynasty China – several hundred years after the Tang Dynasty, which was the source material for Kay's last novel, Under Heaven – Kay casts a storyteller's eye on, and takes according liberties with, the events of history.

The second focal character in River of Stars is Lin Shan, the beloved daughter of a scholar and writer. She is unlike other young women of her time: opinionated and brazen, a gifted songwriter and calligrapher. An encounter with an aging poet, sentenced to exile for offence against the Emperor, and her arranged marriage to a distant imperial relation draw her into the machinations and complexities of the court, where factions struggle in silence, where a wrong word or expression can mean exile or death.

As Daiyan rises to meet his destiny, growing from bandit to soldier to hero, and Shan struggles with her own predetermined path, it is hardly surprising that the characters meet, a relationship developing between them as their storylines twist and intertwine.

Spanning decades, and encompassing an entire world – from the Kitai capital to the northern plains, from the decadence of court to the bloody muck of war, from the most beautiful to the most brutal violence – River of Stars is an expansive, sprawling novel. By focusing on Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan, amongst a cast of dozens, Kay compellingly weaves a narrative out of the historical record. Recasting historical China as Kitai allows Kay to explore the human face obscured within the record and textbook notations. And what a face it is.

Daiyan and Shan are vivid, compelling characters, realistically drawn and operating within – and chafing against – the realities of their world. But they are not the only ones. Even relatively minor characters, such as Shan's husband, a collector of historical artifacts, are well-developed and surprisingly complex. The war leaders of the Altai, the horsemen threatening Kitai from the north, are more casually drawn, but even those depictions exceed the usual and expedient "barbarian horde" cliches.

The complexity of both the characters and the world they inhabit makes for something of a slow start to the book: it takes a while to establish everything from history to geography to family dynamics to courtly machinations, not to mention the complicated relationships, which grow only more tangled as the novel progresses. Kay deals with the scene setting with both efficiency and grace (with events like a mass killing, a gentle seduction and a roadside robbery in the first three chapters, the narrative is hardly bogged down), but readers may find themselves struggling to orient themselves in the first 50 pages or so.

Perseverence, however, will reap rewards.

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River of Stars is the sort of novel one disappears into, emerging shaken, if not outright changed. A novel of destiny, and the role of individuals within the march of history, it is touched with magic and graced with a keen humanity. It unfolds with a seeming recklessness, a sense of sprawl and inclusiveness that belies the tight control and care, which only emerges in its final chapters, a sudden sense that every word, every one of its 600-plus pages, is significant.

This impression is only affirmed when one turns back to the first page and realizes just how much of the novel is present in its opening lines. Nothing is wasted, nothing is excess to needs. As sumptuous and sprawling as River of Stars is, it is, foremost, a keen example of the storyteller's art, a distillation as heady as plum wine.

Victoria writer Robert J. Wiersema is the author of Before I Wake and Bedtime Story.

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