Guy Gavriel Kay’s 2010 novel, “Under Heaven,” was set in the fictional kingdom of Kitai, a richly re-imagined version of 8th-century China during the cultural heyday of the Tang Dynasty. The story began with the announcement of an extravagant gift and ended with the onset of a military rebellion that would alter the history of the Kitan Empire. The result was a virtuoso display of Kay’s characteristic fusion of fantasy and scrupulous historical research.
In his new novel, “River of Stars,” Kay turns once again to the world of Kitai, giving us an expansive, independent narrative set about four centuries after the events of the earlier book. Much has changed in Kitai during the intervening years, and not for the better. A series of catastrophes — the aforementioned rebellion, incursions by barbarian hordes from the northern steppes, an ongoing series of factional disputes — has left the empire in a much-diminished state. The former capital, Xinan, once the pinnacle of civilization and home to 2 million souls, is now a rubble-filled ruin with a population of 100,000. The army, led largely by politically appointed incompetents, is a spent force. The newest ruler, Emperor Wenzong, is a single-minded aesthete with little interest in practical matters of state. Most significant, large sections of the empire have been ceded to a ferocious northern tribe. A sense of loss permeates the novel and is reflected in the lines of this frequently repeated poem: “Wolves howl. I cannot find rest / Because I am powerless / To amend a broken world.”
Among those making their way through that broken world is Kay’s immensely appealing protagonist, Ren Daiyan. We first encounter him as a teenage boy with visions of glory, of recovering the rivers and mountains of the lost prefectures and returning Kitai to its former state of preeminence. He will prove remarkably well-suited to this self-imposed task. “River of Stars” traces the constantly shifting arc of Daiyan’s career, in the course of which he evolves from dreaming adolescent to charismatic outlaw to military leader of vast accomplishment and almost mythical stature. His story forms the central thread in a complex narrative that illuminates the history of Kitai itself, a country moving from one crisis to another, weakened by internal divisions, haunted by its own past, and threatened once again by savage forces from beyond its northern borders. In essence, the novel tells the story of a nation that has lost its way, and of one man’s impossible attempt to reverse the trajectory of history.
Kay surrounds this central figure with a gallery of equally credible characters, among them soldiers, poets, court politicians and Mongol-like tribesmen from the invading northern armies. The most important — and affecting — of these is the songwriter-calligrapher Lin Shan, who has been educated well beyond the limits traditionally imposed on the women of that time and place. Kay’s account of her impassioned relationship with Daiyan is presented with delicacy and restraint, and adds a significant grace note to this opulent recreation of an exotic, long-vanished culture.
“River of Stars” is filled with one precisely rendered moment after another. Kay seems equally at home describing military encounters, imperial court protocols, various styles of calligraphy and the complex aesthetics of constructing a proper garden. As always, he merges fantasy and historical realism with deceptively effortless mastery. The novel’s few overtly fantastic occurrences — an occasional intrusion from the spirit world, the appearance of an erotic succubus who leaves Daiyan an unexpected memento — are laid like brushstrokes into the fabric of the surrounding narrative.
Like the best of Kay’s previous work (“Tigana,” “The Sarantine Mosaic”), “River of Stars” succeeds on many levels. It is, first of all, a grand entertainment that immerses the reader in the particulars of a vividly created world, providing an absorbing account of love, war, politics, art and the relationship of the individual to the state. It manages the difficult business of constructing a narrative around a believably larger-than-life hero, while celebrating the value of anonymous, largely forgotten lives. It is also, in the Tolstoyan sense, a philosophical romance, combining an intricate, deeply engaging story with a meditation on the forces that help shape the larger movements of history.
From whatever angle you approach it, “River of Stars” is a major accomplishment, the work of a master novelist in full command of his subject. It deserves the largest possible audience.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
RIVER OF STARS
By Guy Gavriel Kay
Roc. 632 pp. $26.95