The following is a review of the audio-book edition of Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars, a return to the world and setting of his critically acclaimed Under Heaven, narrated by Simon Vance and first released in July 2013.
This was not my first experience of a collaboration between author Guy Gavriel Kay and narrator Simon Vance having late last year listened to Vance reading my all-time favourite Kay novel, Tigana. I thought then that the narrator had the perfect voice for the author’s beautiful narrative and so I felt confident that River of Stars was a close to a "sure thing" as you’re likely to get.
Before the review, the story: Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life – in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later – and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.
Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor – and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.
In an empire divided by bitter factions circling an exquisitely cultured emperor who loves his gardens and his art far more than the burdens of governing, dramatic events on the northern steppe alter the balance of power in the world, leading to events no one could have foretold, under the river of stars.
Guy Gavriel Kay is a very fine author, capable of writing wonderfully well within any genre. Those of use who read and review within the fantasy genre are forever grateful that he continues to produce books that belong to it. Kay’s forte is difficult to nail down – some might say alternate history, others historical fantasy and while both descriptions go some way to helping to explain his work to others neither are quite accurate enough. Perhaps the term often applied to Tim Burton’s films, a re-imagining, might convey well how Kay takes moment and place in time and uses it as the loom upon which he weaves his story.
Kay’s writing is, as always, poetic, the phrasing almost hypnotic. River of Stars is a large book that should be read/listened to carefully and steadily, as it is to be savoured. The book displays all the signs of being well researched and this allows for the story to evolve seamlessly as the cleverly interwoven storylines converge. Oh, and did I mention it’s inspired by Ancient China, which is a time I find particularly fascinating? There is however a rather dark feel to the narrative as all human life at this time is precarious and cheap with the lower classes of society in particular being used mercilessly by those of higher birth. The characters, both the low- and high-born are, as is always the case with Kay, well rounded and completely believable.
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Simon Vance’s reading of Kay’s words as his delivery was subtle and nuanced. He wisely did not attempt to adopt Chinese accents for the characters, as surely that path would have only lead to disaster! Instead his delivery is quietly powerful and he cleverly uses subtle alterations that make it easy to identify between the large cast of characters. Vance is a narrator I would never hesitate to recommend and when provided with good source material the outcome with always be a pleasure to listen to.
Under Heaven was an excellent book and this ‘sequel’ is also very, very good. It is a rich and vibrant tale inspired by the decadent Song Dynasty. I would highly recommend River of Stars to fans of Kay’s previous works and for those with a love of historical fantasy, particularly concerning China.
River of Stars (unabridged) by Guy Gavriel Kay
Narrated by Simon Vance
Length: 20 hours, 48 minutes
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Limited
River of Stars is available only from Audible.co.uk