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4.3 out of 5 stars57
4.3 out of 5 stars
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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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VINE VOICEon 18 August 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The events in Kay's previous novel, "Under Heaven", cast a long shadow. Four centuries and three dynasties later, the state's fear of another armed rebellion has led it to let its army wither. The arts and power of the Ninth Dynasty have been replaced by the bureaucracy and paranoia of the Twelfth; and a great northern swathe of the empire has long since fallen into the hands of the barbarian horsemen, now primed to press home their advantage.

Into this humiliated milieu steps Ren Daiyan, a young man with a genius for battle and a yearning to restore Kitai to the glories of its brightest days. Love, war and politics, poets and spirits, swirl in his wake, but destiny is not simply a matter of will and "our lives are not only ours".

The sublime aesthetic of imperial Kitai (China) is perfectly suited to Kay's skills, and as ever his characterisation is rich and compelling, his plotting a growing river that carries his reader as helplessly as it does his protagonists. Occasionally his habitual observations can verge on the trite:

"If this had happened, if there had been a killing either way, it might have changed what followed in the world. Or not. It is never possible to know with certainty."

More often, they strike home:

"He wasn't about to claim he was being virtuous or brave, standing here awkwardly holding a sword, but he was being true to himself before the world and the gods. Maybe that would come to matter, in some way?"

There is adventure, dignity, generosity and a light touch of supernatural thrill herein. Constantly gathering speed, "River of Stars" truly takes flight in its last 100 pages, when the painful demands of empire tragically collide with the needs of honour. Fantasy readers are fortunate that the genre has engendered such fine writing.
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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 25 July 2013
Like another reviewer, I also struggled with rating this and would ideally have awarded it 4.5 stars. The landmark Guy Gavriel Kay features are all there - the sweeping, epic scale, the multiple, concurrent plotlines, the touch and feel of a culture long past. What I also found missing was the engagement with the main characters that to me has always driven Kay's stories. Tigana makes me cry every time I read it and that's because ever single character in that book matters to me as a reader. In RoS, while I enjoyed the movement of the story, the twists of the plot, the scale of the big decisions, I didn't get involved enough on a granular character-level to care that much about what happened to them. The feeling in this book is very different from that of Tigana or Lions of Al-Rassan - it feels like we're being offered a bird's eye view of a world turning somewhere below us, rather than being pulled into the thick of things along with the characters. Maybe that's an intentional decision on Kay's part - in fact, with a writer this skilled it almost definitely is!

In the end I decided to go with 5 stars instead of 4. This book *did* move me, *did* make an impression on me and while chunky entertained me enough to get through it in a few days. And would I recommend this book to others? Definitely, yes.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Using history as a broad base, GGK returns to his take on Imperial China, focusing on the Song dynasty this time. Mixing history with a generous hand, his own characters move through a world rich in culture, heritage and hints of magic. This tale is one of ambition and loyalty, secrets and truth, and the fear of power in all the wrong places.

Woven like a beautiful tapestry with a poetical hand and the sense of legends in the making, this story is never hurried. At times it feels like it's wandering far from the main points, but this is a complex tale with many different threads and factors. All of them count in the end.

So many different plots and individual stories play out here - magic and love, machinations and mystery, art and violence, loyalty and betrayal. The brush strokes may be broad at times, but the detailing is exquisite when it needs to be. By the end I was left thoughtful about the price of glory and the lure of peace, what place pride and fear have in such great decisions, and how history and legend can turn ordinary people in to heroes and villains.

Its scope is epic, its basis a legend and its characters deep. Beautiful, sad and full of reflections. GGK is a master of his craft.
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VINE VOICEon 17 August 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is, as my header says, a big book - 632 pages in my edition. It is also a detailed, elaborate book that takes time to establish its storyline and protagonists, of whom there are quite a few.

When I was reading I was engrossed. GGK is a consummate story teller who imbues his characters with depth and emotion. But having put it down, I found myself picking up other things to read, and I recall being about half way through and thinking that while all this set up is fine and dandy, it was time things started happening. They do, of course, but I'm afraid to say I gave up the wait, and jumped 150 pages to the last chapter. I know that at some stage I"ll re-read this properly, but not right now.
Don't get me wrong - this is an engaging, absorbing book with sympathetic, intelligent characters, but it's a tad too leisurely for me, there's too much politicking by men, and I couldn't quite believe in the love story - ideally I'd give it 3.5 stars.
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VINE VOICEon 6 May 2014
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Rivers of Stars unfolds on the premise that 'small things can change a life'. At the start of Chapter One a young boy, Ren Daiyin, is in the woods in the morning secretly practising with a forbidden bow and arrow. Chance leads him to be chosen to make up the numbers of a patrol accompanying an official to investigate a murder in a remote village. By the end of this same Chapter and the end of the first day of this tale, Daiyin has single-handedly slaughtered 7 outlaws and is an innocent boy no longer.

Chapter two introduces Daiyin's love interest, the educated and outspoken Lin Shan, even though it is many, many pages and much adventure later when the two starcrossed lovers first meet.

And then in Chapter 3.... well perhaps dear reader you should find your own way, unguided, to Chapter 3.

This sweeping, anthemic tome will enthrall GGK fans and new readers alike. Plan a quiet weekend and indulge.
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I loved the original book Under Heaven and for some time I've been thinking my way through various plots that Guy could have thrown into the world and left wondering why a new title hadn't been forthcoming for quite some time, so when this book landed I was more than happy so much so that the title I was reading prior to this was put back on the shelf to make space within my brain for this outing.

As usual with Guy the book has wonderful pace, some great twists and with characters that really leap from the pages really work wonderfully together. Add to the mix an author who loves to lead you around the world whilst spinning a wonderful tale on a scale that went far beyond what I had imagined all round gave me something great to sit back with.

Finally throw in some magical action sequences and all round I was a more than happy reader. Great stuff.
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on 18 October 2013
There are few contemporary writers with Kay's skill.

The writing is effortless and rather beautiful. Each character is carefully crafted, yet consumately human and the storyline is meticulously researched and masterfully delivered.

I have read all of Kay's prose fiction and have never been disappointed. If you have never read any, please, please invest the time - you will be rewarded with an experience which will stay with you for some time.

Other reviews precis the plot of this sweeping novel. You should read those, too. This reviewer is more interested in the sumptuous simplicity with which Kay writes.

I will continue to buy every GGK novel as soon as it appears.

'Nuff said.
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on 22 July 2014
This is one of the best books I have read in a long time. When I was younger I read the Finovar Tapestries, Lions of Al-Rassan and Tigana. I recall how much I enjoyed them. More recently, whilst waiting for next Games of Thrones saga, I remembered the author and read some of his more recent books. Overwhelmed. Just as super as I recall years ago. The depth of the characters and the woven plots which always tie so wonderfully together at the end, leave you thinking WOW, Oh My!. I am now going back over the earlier books and having the pleasure of enjoying the subtleties of the dialogue now that I am older...and some what wiser!
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