Guy Gavriel Kay’s River of Stars read by Simon Vance

River of Stars audio-book coverThe 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.

8.8/10

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

Fantastic fantasy artwork: The Fionavar Tapestry by Martin Springett

Over the coming weeks and months, all the reviewers here on Fantasy Book Review will be selecting their favourite fantasy artwork, choosing books that they are proud to have on their bookshelves, books that are worth buying for the covers alone.

I am very pleased to kick off this series of special features with the work of author, illustrator and musician Martin Springett. In 2006, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry was reissued in the UK, gloriously adorned by Martin’s illustrations and I clearly remember picking up the first book and being enchanted by its beautiful cover. I could almost feel myself falling into it and I would spend longer and longer just gazing at it, connecting the illustrations to the story that was unfolding. I have many fine-looking books sitting on my bookshelf but the covers of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road are without question my favourites of them all.

So, without further ado here is Martin, in his own words, talking about the process behind their creation:

“Creating images for book covers is one of the most enjoyable and challenging jobs I have as an Illustrator. No one does anything entirely on their own. There are many unseen connections in the creation of any work, but perhaps especially in the area of book illustration, where one is part of a team including publisher, editor, art director, illustrator, and, of course, author (I should add here that I haven’t had as much input from an author on subsequent cover projects as I had from Guy on these books). Generally the author does not choose the artist who will be creating the covers of his or her books, but will be consulted in the later stages, when the overall visual concept has been agreed on between artist and publisher. Some publishers will do this as a courtesy to the author, others will not. When reading the manuscript of a book I am to illustrate, I make notes on those visual aspects that appeal to me and that I feel give an overall sense of the story. Reading a manuscript in galley form is in fact a very different experience from that of reading a finished, bound book. I recall my first reading of The Summer Tree was from an unbound galley.

The Summer Tree book cover image: UK Reissue of The Fionavar Tapestry, 2006

“I was so caught up in the tale that my living room floor became covered in a blizzard of paper as I let the individual pages fall to the floor. Collecting them up again and putting them in order was a bit of a problem! The Summer Tree has a large cast of characters, and my first instinct was to try and depict this fascinating “parade”, but it seemed to me and to the art director that that would be too literal and ungainly. The publishers, McClelland and Stewart, were I think aware that this was a special book, and wished to have a cover that would reflect this. It was agreed that I should depict an image in the style and manner of a tapestry, decorative rather than literal, with none of the usual western perspective. This was deliciously freeing. I discovered an entirely new way of “seeing”. Instead of trying to convince viewers that they are looking at a three dimensional scene, I was concerned with form and movement on the surface of the picture, rather than attempting to create the illusion of depth. I became much more aware of design. It also gave me insight into images that were created in the medieval period. Ultimately I decided not to feature any of the main characters in the images I was creating for the covers. I think this was partly a reaction to trying to portray them in earlier versions, as I found that the more “realistic” detail I put in, the unhappier I became, as though I was doing a bad re-write and watching all the mystery of the story drain away. This was exactly in line with the way that Guy saw things as well. Somehow the cover illustration should intrigue, should retain the mystery; avoiding being too literal and yet still draw the reader in. In other words the book cover should say “Hello darling, I’m all yours, buy me” – or words to that effect. I met Guy for the first time when I was half way through the drawing of The Summer Tree cover. The circumstances weren’t that favorable at the time. I had made a lot of changes to the design already, and here was this pesky author wanting more. Luckily as it turned out, we were in harmony on the depiction of Fionavar. Guy was generous in his praise of where the cover was at the time, and I was happy to make what turned out to be a simple change: the colour of the unicorn. I’m sure most readers will have noticed by now that I didn’t give the unicorn wings, an oversight I have always wanted to correct. When I came to work on The Wandering Fire I knew exactly where I was. I felt at home being in Fionavar, and by this point I began to feel that I was depicting designs that the people of that world would create for themselves: large tapestries that would hang on the walls to commemorate great deeds or moments in their history. Actually, I have to believe in any world I am asked to create, if it is to have any resonance in my work. There is a technical difference between the first and second covers of the Fionavar books: The Summer Tree is basically a line drawing with colour rendered in inks and airbrush, whereas The Wandering Fire is an acrylic painting, with sky and snow created with inks and airbrush. The sea monster in The Wandering Fire was originally drawn up in black and white ink, but having gazed at so many brightly coloured medieval manuscripts, I knew I wanted to emulate their look, and was frustrated by the harshness of the line work. I did a little experimenting with acrylic, painted out the monster with white acrylic, and began to lay in washes of green and blue paint.

The Wandering Fire book cover image: UK Reissue of The Fionavar Tapestry, 2006

“The Wandering Fire was my second painting. I had always used inks before this, and so not only did I learn a new visual vocabulary doing these pieces, I found a new technique as well.

The Darkest Road book cover image: UK Reissue of The Fionavar Tapestry, 2006

“When I came to The Darkest Road I wanted to take the image to another level, and it has become my favourite of the three. I had become a great admirer of Guy’s work and we became friends during the creation of the trilogy. All that and more is in this image. I felt inspired during the work, and I painted the swan boat last, as I knew I was leaving the world of Fionavar, just as Leyse was. I have painted many book covers since then, but the situation with the trilogy was unique. After the success of The Summer Tree, the Canadian and British publishers basically said “go ahead and do whatever you want on the covers” which of course I was happy to do, so I had complete freedom within the confines of the visual concept now worked out. Also, as more and more publishers around the world bought the images for their editions, I had a financial cushion so I could — and these are the words every artist and writer loves– take my time and get it right. Generally of course, a cover artist is a hired gun. You’re not there to take your time and explore and ruminate to your heart’s content; there’s always a deadline. This is reasonable if not ideal: publishing is a business. Along with Guy’s input, the fact that the books were published in at least ten countries around the world with my covers, and can still be found on bookshelves here in Canada in their original covers sixteen years later, certainly makes the designing of these images unique in my career.”
Martin Springett

The words above have been reproduced with the kind permission of both Martin Springett and Deborah Meghnagi.

What is Martin Springett working on now?

October 18, 2011 will see the publication Caitlin Sweet’s The Pattern Scars (ChiZine Publications), a dark fantasy book which features Martin Springett’s work (not on the cover though). Click on the images below to view it in a larger size.

The Pattern Scars book cover imageAn illustration by Martin Springett featured in The Pattern Scars.Another illustration by Martin Springett featured in The Pattern Scars.

About The Pattern Scars
Nola is born into poverty in Sarsenay City. When her mother realizes that Nola has the gift of Othersight and can foretell the future, she sells her to a brothel seer, who teaches the girl to harness her gift. As she grows up, she embraces her new life, and even finds a small circle of friends. All too soon, her world is again turned upside down when one of them is murdered. When a handsome, young Otherseer from the castle promises to teach her, she eagerly embraces the prospects of luxury beyond what she can imagine and safety from a killer who stalks girls by night. Little does she know that he will soon draw her into a web of murder, treachery, and obsessive desire that will threaten the people and land she holds dear, and that she will soon learn the harshest of lessons: that being able to predict the future has nothing to do with being able to prevent it.

We hope you have enjoyed reading our special feature on Martin Springett and his work, the best place to visit to learn more about him and his work is http://www.martinspringett.com/

We also hope that you will let us know about your favourite book covers/illustrations. Please let us know all about your favourites by using the comments box below, including a link to the images themselves if possible.