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River of Stars
Guy Gavriel Kay
Viking Canada, 640 pages

River of Stars
Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn and raised in Winnipeg. In 1974-75, he assisted Christopher Tolkien with the editing of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Guy Kay studied law at the University of Toronto and was admitted to the Bar in Ontario in 1981. He worked both as script consultant and principal writer for CBC Radio's award-winning series The Scales of Justice. He and his family live in Toronto.

Guy Gavriel Kay Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Under Heaven
SF Site Review: Ysabel
SF Site Review: The Last Light of the Sun
SF Site Review: The Last Light of the Sun
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With Guy Gavriel Kay
SF Site Review: Beyond This Dark House: Poems
SF Site Review: Lord of Emperors
SF Site Review: Sailing to Sarantium
SF Site Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With Guy Gavriel Kay

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Steven H Silver

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Several years ago, I had a reader contact me about one of Guy Gavriel Kay's novels, asking why it hadn't been considered for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. I explained that Kay's novels were not in fact alternate history, but rather set in magical worlds in which our world forms a strong basis for the history and culture. The reader insisted, "but they read like alternate history," and I suppose at some level they do, which is a testament to Kay's ability to translate his vision of these worlds to the written page. I suppose, therefore, that River of Stars, Kay's latest novel, "reads" like an alternate history of the Northern Song Dynasty, but rather than alternate history, it is the history of a world that never was.

Kay weaves together a large number of stories and characters, although for several chapters it isn't entirely clear which ones will be ongoing characters and which ones will simply move in and out of the storyline or die off entirely. Few of them wind up living the lives they expect, even before the massive tidal wave of history rolls over them. Characters find that their choices aren't always the obvious ones, although they do make sense for the characters in the long run. Kay is happy to focus on everyone from the Kitai and Xiaolu Emperors down to the peasants and outlaws who make up the lower levels of society.

The style used to tell River of Stars is interesting, giving the feeling of reading an historical document that can refer to the characters' futures even as the action is all told from a contemporaneous point of view. There are frequent references to prophecy (although not all pan out) as well as mentioning that minor actions will become the stuff of legend later on. Characters on all levels see their fortunes wax and wane as surely as the phases of the moon.

Just as River of Stars is not an alternate history, it hardly seems like fantasy either, despite reading as a fantasy novel, the characters' references to the will of the gods and spirits. Nearly everything that happens can be described in terms of coincidence of simply the way the characters view events through the lens of their belief. Something clearly fantastic only truly occurs once in the entire volume, but its impact seems muted even as it marks one of the characters for potential greatness.

For all the major historical events in the novel, Kay really does focus on the individuals. Ren Daiyan begins the novel as a young boy who is training in the remote town of Shengdu for a future that may never come. Lin Shan is a young woman who has separated herself from the standards of the age by not only gaining an education, but using it to write poetry and make her voice heard. Hang Dejin is the Prime Minister of Kitai, dealing with Emperor Wenzong, his deputy Prime Minister Kai Zhen, and his own son, Hang Hsien. These characters come into contact with others and have their own agendas which they try to achieve even as others try to thwart them, or they simply get in the way of history or random events. But their personalities and story lines are always woven tightly into the larger events Kay is depicting.

Kay is an excellent storyteller and his ability with River of Stars demonstrates his strengths. He brings alive aworld that he has created, imbuing it with just the right mixture of this history he has mined in its invention with his own imagination to make it feel like a real world with historical depth and a future that can't be foreseen by any of his characters as they try to live their own lives and improve the world from their own points of view.

Copyright © 2013 Steven H Silver

Steven H Silver is a seven-time Hugo Nominee for Best Fan Writer and the editor of the anthologies Wondrous Beginnings, Magical Beginnings, and Horrible Beginnings. He is the publisher of ISFiC Press. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is heavily involved in convention running and publishes the fanzine Argentus.


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