The scene opens with young Ren Daiyan whipping his wooden sword around a bamboo grove, battling imaginary barbarians, imagining great things while the Empire is in decline all around him. Suddenly, a small seemingly insignificant decision sets his life and dreams into motion. How does one man rise as a Empire falls?
In Under Heaven, Kay described life in 8th Century China. In River of Stars he returns to China four Centuries later, in his fictionalized version of the Song Dynasty.
Kay’s writing is as poetic and sublime as ever. The first paragraph sets the tone:
Late autumn, early morning. It is cold, mist rising from the forest floor, sheathing the green bamboo trees in the grove, muffling sounds, hiding the Twelve Peaks to the east. The maple leaves on the way here are red and yellow on the ground, and falling. The temple bells from the edge of town seem distant when they ring, as if from another world. (3)
My only problem with River of Stars is Kay’s tendency to overstate one of his favourite themes: that apparently small random choices have the power drastically change the course of a life and the history of a nation. The theme is interesting, but he mused on it so often, it felt overstated in such a subtle novel.
River of Stars is a gripping account of one man’s life as chaos, war, affluence, and political subterfuge swirl around him. Kay is clearly at the height of his literary prowess.
—Guy Gavriel Kay, River of Stars (Toronto: Viking, 2013).