For a boy growing up in a rural village in the farther reaches of a crumbling dynasty called Kitan, Ren Daiyan has always had some healthy sized ambitions, such as restoring Kitan to its long lost glory. NBD. On the other side of the kingdom, the noble lady Lin Shan, the only child of a nobleman, has been given a man’s education in a world where women’s lives are heavily restricted. Her sharp mind sets her apart and captures the attention of the emperor while ostracizing her among other women of the court. These two exemplary people have intricate, grand, and intertwined futures that change the course of their world’s history. River of Stars is their story.
Ever since I finished River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay, I’ve waffled about whether or not review it. Guy Gavriel Kay is hardly a writer who needs an introduction to (dare I say) literary fantasy readers, being one of the bigger names currently out there. However, this book is so damn good and there is one facet in particular that I loved so much that I felt I would be remiss in not sharing it with you, dear readers.
For all that this is an epic fantasy, it is a quiet sort of book. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people getting cut in half and stuff like that, but this is also a novel of manners, in which conversations and body language exchanged between diplomats are just as pivotal as the grand battles pitched between Kitan and its foes. The action is sprinkled through occasionally dense passages of philosophical reflections, making this tome perhaps not the best match for someone who needs their books to move at a breakneck pace to hold their interest. The thoughtfulness of the narrative was one of the things that set it apart for me; I loved the constant return to the relationship between storytelling and history, and how each influences the other. Kay’s fantasy world, based largely on Ancient China, is sweepingly well developed, nuanced, and refreshing in its departure from the typical medieval European framework of so many epic fantasy novels. Kay’s writing is poetic and painfully beautiful, though I sometimes found his predilection for sentence fragments and eschewing conjunctions a bit distracting.
Now, for the good stuff. Back when I was in grad school, there was some discussion of people’s fondness for “strong female characters,” and how these female characters’ strengths were characteristics typically attributed to masculinity. This was roughly six years ago that this discussion took place, and it still sits with me. I’m not immune to loving the idea of a female character kicking ass and taking names, but it made me more aware of the demonization of traits typically considered “feminine” by equating them with weakness.
Since I obviously love a strong female character, I pretty much immediately developed a lady boner for Shan. From the outset her strength is obvious, even though, with the exception of one or two moments of desperation, she is never martial. Her strength is 100% encompassed by her brilliant, brilliant mind. She is sharp, she is perceptive, and she is a force to be reckoned with once she sets her sights on something. She is fierce, fierce fierce, but she is also sensitive, sensitive, sensitive, a poet with a big, vulnerable, compassionate heart who is able to observe and instinctively understand the motivations and feelings of others. Her strength is defined by traits that aren’t strictly male but aren’t strictly female, either; rather, she is an amalgam of an array of different qualities that make her, well, human, a refreshing alternative to the typical “I wrote this really strong female character that is basically He-Man, only with a sweet rack” that I so often see in epic fantasy penned by both men and women. Her character refuses to be contained by the parameters set upon her by a rigid patriarchal society, and so she is characterized as “strong” in a way that calls into question the systematic oppression of women.
There was a moment when, after reading a passage in which Shan breaks the feet of a would-be-assailant and likes it, when I thought, aha! She’s realizing she loves to fight, and she is going to run off and join this clan of ninjas living in the mountains who accept women as members that keeps getting alluded to! I shared my hypothesis with my mother, who recommended the book to me, and she just shook her head and said, “Erika, you’ve read too much fantasy. I think she’s a bit more intellectual than that.” And, alas, mother was right, as always.
Anyways, THE POINT is that this is a wonderful book by a master craftsman. It’s a 700 something page meditation on destiny, on story, on all of the different ways that strength and love can manifest. It has deep, vivid characters and all the intrigue you could possibly want. The romance between Shan and Daiyan was of course easily predicted, BUT I loved HOW they fall in love, and there are fairly spicy sex scenes if you’re into that sort of thing (who isn’t?!). Throw in a strong female lead that is elegantly nuanced and offers a dollop of gender commentary and you’ve got a hell of a book. If you love the convoluted, sprawling epicness of Game of Thrones but could do without the torture porn and the gratuitous rape, check this one out.