Guy Gavriel Kay is always readable and reliable, but this one wasn’t my favorite. It’s got his usual epic- and destiny-laden battles and true loves, but he’s trying to write like his characters, and it bogs it down a bit. Also, there are some time-jumps that are a little jarring. But overall, a very good read, if a bit of an investment.
River of Stars isn’t a direct sequel, but takes place a couple hundred years after Under Heaven, which I read, liked, and remember none of. It is now the 12th Dynasty in Kitai (based on China’s Northern Song Dynasty, per Kay’s afterword), and the emperor and court have basically neutered Kitai’s army. Good, charismatic commanders are too likely to instill loyalty in their soldiers, and the army needs to be loyal to the emperor, therefore the army is made up of drafted farmhands and run by clueless toadies. The court prizes calligraphy, poetry, songs, and beauty above all else, and to be a soldier and know how to use a weapon is seen as demeaning. This works find as long as things run smoothly, but when a barbarian tribe decides to invade, Kitai is pretty much helpless.
Enter Ren Daiyan, a clerk’s son turned outlaw, who feels the call of the empire and makes it his mission to save Kitai. Through shrewd planning and a few powerful allies, he works his way up to general of the army. Along the way, he meets Lin Shan, a woman who was educated “unnaturally” by her eccentric father, writing poems and songs even though she’s “only a woman.” (If I went back and counted the number of times the phrase “only a woman” was used, I’d probably dock another star from this. Sign of the times, blah blah bullshit.) There’s love, there’s angst, there’s battles.
The story is fine, but I think Kay took the songs and poetry influence a little too seriously, and there is a lot of floweriness in the writing. Also, I guess he doesn’t like to leave characters hanging, so he does this odd thing where he’ll tell you what happens to a minor character – a couple paragraphs of his/her whole life story – in the middle of a chapter. It’s like he wants you to know what happens, but the book is already 600+ pages long, so he just sums up a character before he exits stage left. ‘Ming Dun was blessed with a long and happy life, and would tell the story of his encounter with Ren Daiyan many times in following years: to merchants, to grandchildren, to weary travelers,’ and so on. It seemed unnecessary in a book that had a lot going on.
Not my favorite Kay, but if you like ancient Chinese culture with some soap opera thrown in, this may be the book for you.