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4.3 out of 5 stars
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4.3 out of 5 stars
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book, as is Under Heaven, is a re-imagining of China in the past. I'm afraid I don't know enough about Chinese history to be able to identify which period is being re-imagined, not that it matters at all. The action has moved forward by about three hundred years, and apart from odd mentions in the narrative of people or events that happened in the first book, there is no close connection between the two.

It is a huge book and a huge and magnificent story which interweaves various separate story strands until they all come together in a magnificent and possibly ambiguous finale. The background is the manoeuvring of the power factions around the now weakened and decadent Kitai. In the war that followed the action of Under Heaven, fourteen prefectures were lost to the Xiaolu empire, barbarians from the Steppes, themselves now under threat from another tribe of horsemen, the Altai.

The major characters are Ren Daiyan, a village boy from Shengdu, Lin Shan, daughter of a scholar who has been educated beyond the usual levels for a girl, Lu, a poet who tells the truth, the Emperor and his politicians who vie with each other for cunning and ruthlessness.

Life in Kitai is precarious and cheap. If you make a mistake you pay with your life. If information is required from you, the likelihood is that you will die under interrogation. Equally, if you manage to guess right, the rewards are great, though you might not keep them long. There is a lot of death in this book, but I would not call it violent as such, because it is not dwelt upon and we adopt the values of Kitai society.

This is not a book you can read quickly. Take your time and relish the detail and subtlety that Guy Gavriel Kay has created. It is possibly his best book to date, but I would have to reread the others to make sure and that would take a very long time. If you don't know his work, what pleasure awaits you.
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on 19 April 2013
Ideally I would give this book 4.5 stars. GGK is one of my favourite writers. 'The Lions of Al-Rassan' The Lions of Al-Rassan, also historical fantasy, is one of my all time favourite books, and for me it is that comparison/expectation, rather than a comparison with other authors, that would lead me to dock half a point.

Mr Kay has the ability to create characters that are so vibrant and enchanting and through them levels of tension and anticipation that make reading almost too exciting. I did not quite feel that magic. It is in GGK's focus between character and events that I find there is a change. In his recent work, although the characters are well-drawn, GGK's main interest seems to be elsewhere. The net of events, changes, repercussions and philosophical questions dominate the focus. The characters are still interesting but no longer compelling and, for me, his later books have an episodic and slightly disjointed feel. Indeed 'The Last Light of the Sun' felt at times like a collection of short stories.

That said I enjoyed 'River of Stars'. The fact that I take issue at all is due to the level of interest/investment GGK's book inspire.
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on 13 July 2016
Ren is an interesting character and we watch his life go through a variety of upheavals as he tries to follow his naive goal of helping the empire reclaim lost lands and pride, as a boy this is just a dream but as he grows he starts to believe it is his destiny.

The characters and their relationships in the book as all well written and complex with issues of class, wealth, politics and sexual equality dealt with in an intelligent way.

There is plenty of action and the politics and battle tactics are believable and keep you guessing.

The book never really takes sides, it shows the good and bad of the empire and good and bad people inside and outside of it, and this makes for a compelling story where you can't simply take sides and cheer for the hero.

The ending is a surprise with a few last twists where politics and idealism clash.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
"A storyteller, guessing at or finding certainty within, can offer the thoughts of a war-leader as he orders a retreat after ordering an advance. Honourable historians record events as best they can and, often challenging each other, suggest the consequences. There is a difference" (p.561)

'River of Stars' is a work that follows the events associated with China's Northern Song Dynasty during the period of time surrounding the fall of Kaifeng in 1127. A historian, writing his version of events, would follow his instincts to establish the facts, and seek not to distort them with assumptions. On the other hand, a novelist's instincts are to flesh out those bony facts with the personalities involved, take liberties with them, and twist them slightly to reveal the poetic, the tragic; the people behind the events, the humanity hidden in the history.

Stylistically, Kay's writing reminds me at times of Simon Schama; he narrates with a careful delicacy and consideration, his sentences alive with intelligence and ironic asides, using the facts of the time to frame the characters that lived within it. Often a long flowing sentence will be followed by a short one, clarifying the first and adding an insight in the process. At other times, I hear the gentle reflective tones of David Attenborough as he whispers to the camera on one of his wildlife documentaries.

In works of biography, I find it extremely annoying when authors presume to know the inner thoughts of their subjects to the extent where they seem almost to be claiming to be clairvoyant; life stories, be they in the recent past or distant history, need to be anchored firmly to fact. This book had me enjoying those exact same liberties for precisely the same reasons.

History books can be rigid and rather dull. Kay is not afraid to shorten timelines and create inner dialogue, to give space for the characters that emerge from the inspirations that the facts provoke; he has created a beautiful hybrid creature - half fantasy,half fact. With the freedom this gives him, he is able to address certain themes that lie hidden in the events that surround the sacking of the fortress city of Kaifeng, and create a wonderful fantasy that captivates and enlightens.

Wisely, he has changed the names of all the cities and figures that feature in the tale. Various themes emerge, which provoke questions in the reader:

How do individuals emerge from the masses to become lynchpins in history, and what legacies do their legends leave behind; how aware are they of their significance at the time? Why is it that empires fall, having established dominance over all around them? What was the relationship between the God-like emperorrs and their courtiers?

Historical record can often be rightfully accused of being dry; incapable of supporting life within its pages, and Kay irrigates this arid landscape with a wonderful cast of characters that live, breathe, love, scheme, die as events unfold. It's a large novel with a large heart; it offers insights that are not so readily available through the mere reiteration of facts.

Against my expectations, I really enjoyed this book. It's a tale of love, heroism, and honour, and comes thoroughly recommended.
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Kitai, during the Twelfth Dynasty. Several centuries after a devastating civil war that left half the population of the empire dead and its armies disbanded, the empire has still not fully recovered. Soldiers and generals are mistrusted, the fear of another rebellion overwhelming. When Kitai is drawn into a civil war amongst the barbarians of the steppes to the north, their lack of military preparation will lead to disaster. For Ren Daiyan, a young outlaw-turned soldier who hungers to reclaim the Fourteen Prefectures lost to the barbarians decades ago, the chaos will be an opportunity to rise far.

River of Stars is Guy Gavriel Kay's twelfth novel and the second set in a lightly fantasised version of China. The setting being reflected this time is 12th Century China during the Song Dynasty, and specifically the events surrounding the Jurchen/Liao civil war and China's unfortunate intervention in that conflict (motivated by China's desire to reclaim its sixteen lost prefectures) which backfired quite spectacularly.

River of Stars is a self-contained novel but a few oblique references to the events of Under Heaven will resonate more for people familiar with the earlier book. Indeed, whilst being stand-alone in terms of plot and character, River of Stars's themes resonate more strongly when contrasted against the earlier book. Under Heaven was about an empire at the height of its power and River is about the same nation in what some might term decline. The excesses and dangers of the former empire that resulted in over thirty million deaths are also made clear, and make the current nation cautious as a result. If wars and conflicts (real and fictional) stem from often forgetting the lessons of history, River of Stars is about learning from those lessons, perhaps to the point of over-caution.

With Ren Daiyan (loosely based on the real General Yue Fei) Kay has created what initially appears to be a standard heroic protagonist. He is a young, callow youth with a supreme talent for archery and military strategy who grows up to become a leader of men and a national hero when he wins an important, morale-boosting victory in an otherwise disastrous campaign. Yet Kay is not interested in regurgitating Joseph Campbell. Daiyan is more complex than he first appears, his own belief in his own destiny (bolstered by a confrontation with a fox-spirit entity in the novel's only notable magical/supernatural episode) having to be tempered with what is best for Kitai, as Daiyan is - oddly for a former outlaw - a true patriot. The reaction of the Imperial Court to Daiyan's military adventurism is something that I think a lot of readers will find frustrating or even infuriating, but it's also fascinating to see how the court has learned from the lessons of the past and fears anything to prolong war and thus increase the power of the military (and again, it is based on real history; Yue Fei faced much the same opposition after he won a series of significant victories). Ultimately this conflict, between war and peace and between soldiers and governors, lies at the heart of the novel and though our sympathies may be best-won by Daiyan, the point-of-view of the emperor and his advisers is also presented with conviction.

Daiyan's story is only one part of the story. On the other lies Lin Shan, a female poet and writer (loosely based on Li Qingzhao) during a period when women are not expected to pursue such tasks. This wins her a certain notoriety at court and a difficulty in winning female friends, but brings her to the attention of the emperor. Refreshingly, this story sets up a cliche (a woman cutting her own path in a sexist world) which the author then refuses to indulge in. Shan's deportment is unusual for her culture, but she is not persecuted for it and ultimately wins respect and appreciation. However, Kay does use her to reflect on some of the less progressive elements of the period for Chinese women (such as being forced to wear hobbled footware) and muse on how this period was less free and open for women than the preceding one in Under Heaven. Kay also uses Shan's storyline to explore issues such as sexuality and the power of myth and story versus the reality of history.

River of Stars (*****), like so much of Kay's work, is a novel that moves between being bittersweet, triumphant, tragic and reflective. It engages with a variety of themes against a backdrop informed by real history and is told with flair, passion and elegant prose.
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on 6 November 2013
I will caveat my review that as a long time GGK fan my expectation of his work may have clouded this book review.
He is my favourite author and A Song for Arbonne and Lions of Al Rassan would be in my top 5 books of all time. I enjoyed Under Heaven and felt that the culture and history was a good fit for GGK's style and musings. I am 80% of the way through and I have finally started to "get involved" - if it were not for GGK then perhaps I would have not bothered...
The reality is that for once GGK's style has overcome the substance of the actual story and characterisation and because it seems that he has made a concerted effort to write a certain way his normally poetic/lyrical style feels a bit false almost try hard. I have little doubt that as i reach the climax he/the book will hit its stride.
So for those new to GGK you might enjoy this book but know that it this along with Ysabel are GGK's weakest offerings (in my view).
For those like me who are long time fans - you might feel different but for me this is not the classic cross over GGK whose work has created such a loyal fan base.
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on 25 May 2015
Somewhat disappointed. I really have enjoyed all of Guy's previous books, (not read his poetry collection though) but this book was so different to his usual style. On the face of it being a big fan of Guy's and of historical China this should have been another winning formula like Under Heaven, but sadly it isn't. There are times when his usual writing style is evident and when this happens it is great to read, then he switches style and the story seems to lose focus and pace. Really want to write how much I loved this book, but it just isn't up to his usual standard.
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on 24 January 2015
The story started quite well, and although I don't often get bogged down with Chinese names there were rather a lot introduced very quickly. After a while there just didn't seem to be enough going on to hold my attention and I am afraid I failed to finish it. Might have another go later, and I do hope there will be a better response to it. Obviously I didn't get far enought to understand the title too.
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on 16 April 2013
Kay's writing is, as always, poetic and this book is (as the previous reviewer stated) a masterpiece. So well-thought-out, researched, planned and created. If you've never read Guy Gavriel Kay, I whole-heatedly suggest you do; if you have read Guy Kay, I expect you don't need my review to convince you to buy this book.
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on 9 April 2015
Having loved most of Guy Gavriel Kay's previous work, I'm surprised to find myself struggling with this. I think maybe there are just too many characters, and they lack that fundamental of previous works like the Fionavar Tapestry, Lions of Al-Rassan and Tigana - I'm just not really too bothered what happens to these people. I'm around half way through and maybe it will pick up if I manage to stagger a bit further - but so far, I'm quite disappointed.
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