River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay. ★★★
River of Stars is a historical fantasy novel based on Song era China. This book would probably appeal to historical fiction readers more than those looking for fantasy. Magic is limited to a few ghosts and spirits as well as an overall sense of destiny.
According to the back cover blurb: “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.”
River of Stars has a large cast of characters but spends the most time with Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan. Ren Daiyan has dreamed of reclaiming Kitai’s lost provinces since he was a boy, but after a fateful military uprising hundreds of years before, Kitai’s elites keep the army deliberately weak. Daiyan sets off on a path from outlaw to solider to legend, always focused on the prosperity of Kitai above all else. Lin Shan is the daughter of a court gentleman and a rare female poet. She was raised as if she were a son and occupies a strange position at court.
While the back of the cover suggested this was both Daiyan and Shan’s stories, River of Stars really belongs to Daiyan. Shan is intelligent and educated, but she has little impact on the overall events of the novel. In the end, it felt like she had little role outside of being a love interest. She’s also pretty much the only female character. There’s a couple of other women who have one scene each, but none of these reappear or even interact with Shan. Shan never speaks to another named female character, and it’s justified in the narrative by saying that other women dislike Shan because they feel she acts outside the proper role of a woman. Still, Shan has to speak to another woman at some point. Servants? Her mother-in-law? Other court ladies? The “other women don’t like Shan” would be a lot more believable if we saw any of them actually have a conversation with her.
While I’m on the subject of gender, there’s also a lot of objectification and sexual violence going on in the background. While rape is never explicitly described, it’s going on in the background. I got the feeling that Kay was trying to make a point about how horrible this time period was for women, but to do so I think he needs to have actual conversations between women, female characters who impact the plot, or heck, just more female characters in general.
Oh, there’s only one gay character, and he dies. Fortunately, his death isn’t a direct result of his sexual orientation but know this going in.
This is the second novel I’ve read by Kay, the first being The Lions of Al-Rassan, which I really enjoyed. Like River of Stars, The Lions of Al-Rassan was long and started off slow. Unlike River of Stars, the ending contained a sense of overwhelming urgency and tragic destiny. At the end of River of Stars, the only feeling I got was an annoyance that I’d stuck with this one for six hundred pages.
Other people may very well like this one better than I did. As I said above, people looking for historical fiction may very well like it. However, I would suggest avoiding it if you prefer books where female characters have a role outside of love interest or evil, scheming (and shortly dead) wives.