One of my favourite fantasy authors is Guy Gavriel Kay. His works generally take historical periods and – to a greater or lesser degree – add magic. His worlds are not entirely second worlds, more like slightly altered historical Earth, with the serial numbers filed off.
His Under Heaven, taking a fantasy lens to Tang China just before the An Shi Rebellion, was fantastic. It’s tough to say until I actually re-read it and the Sailing to Sarantium duology, but it might be my favourite of his works, and that’s saying a lot.
River of Stars is a sequel to Under Heaven, but returning to the Kitai empire hundreds of years after the events of Under Heaven. It looks at the fall of the Northern Song Dynasty while touching on the Outlaws of the Water Margins and the career of Song general Yue Fei.
I want to start by stating that I enjoyed the book. I recommend it. Saying that, I had a slight sense of disappointment reading River of Stars, and I am having a hard time quantifying the reason for this. Could it be that it seemed somewhat detached? There was an emotional distance between the events, the characters and the readers which did not allow total immersion in the story. However, it’s not as if I wasn’t invested. I tore through the novel as quickly as real life would allow.
Was it that the end seemed anti-climactic? Even setting history aside, the main plot couldn’t have ended any other way. Certainly, some secondary characters may have acted differently while remaining true to their characters as depicted, but I think the decision of the protagonist on which the climax pivoted fit perfectly with that character.
But in the end, this is a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Even one of his disappointments (I had a similar feeling after reading the Last Light of the Sun) is far and away better than almost any other recent fantasy. I am in no place to criticize his technical skills, and while I can imagine changes I might make were it my story, that would have created a much different work, and not necessarily a superior one.
If you like Guy Gavriel Kay, you will surely enjoy River of Stars. If you are a fan of historical fantasies – or just fantasy fiction in general – I strongly recommend River of Stars. I give it 4.5 recurved bows out of 5.
You can learn more about River of Stars here.
You can learn more about Guy Gavriel Kay here.
You can learn more about Under Heaven here.