When I was making my first tentative steps into the world of the arts, it was the writers who used words to create works of wonder and beauty who inspired me the most. I remember being filled with awe at their abilities to make even the grotesque seem wondrous and amazing. But somewhere around the middle of the 20th century elegance and beauty began to be supplanted by harsh terse prose posing as realism. It was if we had become convinced the only way to convey the human experience was by sucking the beauty out of it and reducing it to its base elements. While it’s true the excesses of romanticism needed to be checked, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction.
There was a time when writers like Dickens and Poe were considered popular fiction. Now, those who would strive to be their equals are relegated to the seemingly elitist genre of literary fiction, thus deterring the average reader from experiencing their writings. As a result the publishing industry groans under the weight of the equivalent of fast food it produces each year and wonders why they are losing money. When someone rises from the dining table feeling stuffed but unsatisfied, not only is their health put at risk, but they gradually lose interest in what’s set before them. With nothing to hold their attention they will only pick at their plates or be easily diverted.
The sad part is that most of the time we don’t know what we’re missing. When there’s almost nothing to hold up as a standard against which to judge everything else, it’s easy to think there aren’t any options. However, there are still the occasional authors out there writing popular fiction able to create approachable work while aspiring to make reading an inspiring and special experience. As soon as you open the pages of Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest book, River of Stars published by Penguin Canada, you know you’ll have such an author.
This is Kay’s second book set in Kitai, a fictional version of Imperial China. Its predecessor, Under Heaven, was set in the period when the empire’s borders were protected by the Great Wall and the world flowed down the Silk Road to fill its cities with splendour and wealth; a few hundred years have passed since then and much has changed. The Wall has long since fallen and the barbarian hordes it once kept at bay control much of what was the empire. Instead of deciding which of the tribal leaders they should prop up in order to best serve the empire, the Emperor’s advisors must now ensure they placate the powerful among them with annual tribute payments.
In some ways Kitai has become a mockery of its former glory. In reaction to what were deemed the excesses at the heart of the civil war which tore the empire apart (see Under Heaven for details), radical policy changes were instituted by the court. As it was a military governor responsible for the civil war martial competence is seen as dangerous and discouraged among high ranking officials in the court. The contraction of the empire’s borders is the price they have paid for instilling the belief a person of breeding is above such earthy concerns. After all if the barbarian hordes are so adroit at warfare, than it ill behooves those at the centre of the universe serving the Emperor, the son of heaven, to sully their minds with with such lowly thoughts. So what if the empire sends armies off to die when their commander in chief forgets to bring siege engines when ordered to conquer the capital city of another country.
The conservatism, or fear, which dictates policy in Kitai has also seen changes to the way women of higher rank are treated. More and more daughters and wives are pushed into the background. The idea that a respectable family would educate their daughter, teaching her to read and write, to have opinions and think for herself is unheard of. What use would that be to her when she is destined for a life of service to whomever she is lucky enough to marry..
This is the Kitai both Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are born into. The former is the son of a clerk to a provincial magistrate and the latter the only daughter of a scholar. Both are ill suited to the new realities of the empire. Ever since he was a boy Daiyan has dreamed of leading the armies of Kitai in reclaiming the territories they’ve lost to the barbarian hoards. Shan is equally ill advised in her ambitions as she writes poetry and even sets it to music. While she would not be considered a threat like Daiyan, her abilities have made her a figure of oddity in her social circle.
Aside from their having unconventional behaviour in common, Daiyan and Shan are also fated to come to the attention of people of influence. While this helps Daiyan in achieving his dreams of becoming a military leader and allows Shan to be recognized for her abilities as a poet – even by as an exalted a figure as the Emperor – attention, intelligence, and success aren’t necessarily a winning combination in this world. When those in power notice you, they make use of you for their own ends and you may end up wishing you kept a lower profile.
While Daiyan and Shan are important to the story they are still only two figures on a crowded canvas in the elaborate painting of events Kay has brought to life. With great care and skill he draws our focus to events and characters at its furthest reaches. What happens on the periphery might at first seem inconsequential and have no bearing on the lives of those at the centre. However, as every brush stroke relates to the one next to it when the artist lays ink to paper, everything is interconnected. Over the course of the book Kay carefully brings together the disparate elements of plot and character to form a cohesive, multi-textured and vibrant image.
Through the careful attention to detail he uses to bring even the most minor characters and their environments to life, Kay is able to bring home to us the reality of what it must have been like when the empire was in its death throes. From the arrogance of the high court officials, the peasant who suffers the consequence of their leader’s actions, to the vengeful barbarian hoards intent on pillage and conquering, we see the world through a multitude of eyes. Each of these perspectives is another layer of reality and serves to make Kay’s work all the more vivid and arresting.
While he doesn’t stint from depicting the brutal realities of the world, men think nothing of ordering someone beaten to death with bamboo cane or enjoy watching their enemies heads being eaten alive by fire ants, neither does he glory in them or sensationalize them. They are facts of life, nothing more, nothing less. However, and in some ways more importantly, he doesn’t glorify the opulence of the Empire either. While we are given lovingly detailed descriptions of beautifully decorated chambers and the resplendent garden the Emperor has built, we are also given carefully detailed descriptions of their costs in lives and money. These are not the symbols of an Empire’s glory; they are signs of its dissolute nature and arrogance.
Kay has the uncanny ability to depict the grand sweep of historical events through the eyes of those living through them. In doing so he lets us see how history is never the cut and dried thing it appears in history books. He shows us how seemingly unrelated events, both large and small. build upon each other until they finally reach a tipping point from which there is no return. While on the surface it may appear there was one pivotal moment upon which everything depended, no moment stands completely alone or is unaffected by what came before it.
What’s even more amazing is how through his careful rendering of character and environments we are drawn into this history. The people and the culture they live in become more than just descriptions on the page as he manages to capture those elements of each which make them vital and alive. Yet there is more than just simple realism at work in his depictions. There is an emotional depth to Kay’s work which takes it out of the realm of the he did this and then followed it up with that action we find in most fiction. Nor is there the hyperbole, melodrama, or emotional manipulation which too often passes for “depth.” His work is a delicate balancing act between 19th century naturalism/romanticism and the realism of the modern era that satisfies all of our emotional and logical needs.
River Of Stars is an exceptional piece of work. Right from the start we are drawn into a rich and exotic but very real world. The people populating this world are multi-dimensional individuals with an emotional depth one hardly ever sees in popular fiction anymore. While the book describes the grand sweep of major historical events, because we experience them through the eyes of his characters we never lose sight of the those who are caught up by their turmoil. History has never felt or been more real and reading about it such a pleasure.
Author photo John W MacDonald