River of Stars: History, Poetry, Memory

River of Stars: History, Poetry, Memory

photo-10I’ve just finished re-reading River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay. I really wanted to re-read it because I felt like I had a hard time getting a handle on it the first time through. In retrospect, I rather wish I’d re-read Under Heaven first. Although River of Stars isn’t really a sequel, the two novels are connected thematically and RoS has some typical Kay moments that refer back to UH. Which I sort of caught but not really because it’s been years since the one time I read UH. I didn’t re-read it first because I’d got it out from the library and hadn’t ever bought my own copy. This was probably because I was feeling poor. Or because I was so disappointed in Ysabel that I didn’t want to spend money on a book I feared I’d dislike.

Of course, I didn’t dislike it. So far Ysabel is the only Kay novel I haven’t enjoyed thoroughly. And I’m still trying to figure out why I don’t like Ysabel. But that’s an endeavor for another day. Today I want to write about River of Stars.

First, this isn’t a review. I may include spoilers. I’m writing this to hash out my thoughts about the book so if you don’t want to hear about the surprise plot points and the ending, don’t read the rest of this post. This is choppy because it’s more reading notes and musing aloud than an attempt to pull things together coherently for an essay.

River of Stars is in the same vein as Kay’s other works of historical fantasy. It is the fruit of intense research into a particular time and place, in this case Sung Dynasty China, but Kay’s world and characters are only inspired by that historical reality, they aren’t meant to cleave slavishly to it.

In the acknowledgements Kay says: “I’ve written and spoken extensively about why I find this melding of history and fantasy to be both ethically and creatively liberating. I am significantly more at home shaping thoughts and desires for Lin Shan and Ren Daiyan, or developing the characters of my two Lu brothers, than I would be imposing needs and reflections (and relationships) on their inspirations…”

I also really liked this: “There’s a standard disclaimer to the effect that the academics whose writings or personal communications have been of assistance to an author are not to be held responsible for what is done in a work of fiction. I have used this, but find it slightly disconcerting. Who would ever hold scholars accountable for what a novelist does in using their work?”

I really like what he’s doing with the theme of history and memory in the novel: what historians record and how that’s different from legends and how storytellers will present the same events. And how poets tell yet a different story again. Halfway through the novel I got out a pencil and started marking all the places where the narrator gets self conscious about history, story, poetry, legend. I want to go back and mark up the whole book.

I also do wish I paid more attention to the shifting tenses. I get so caught up in the story I really don’t notice when suddenly we’re in present tense again. In fact tense is one of those things I have always had problems with as a writer. My early attempts at story bounce back and forth between present tense and past tense, never really comfortable in either. So I think something about the way I think just sees tense as sort of less relevant and doesn’t pick up on it as a strong marker. Or something. Anyway, I think that when the narrative is from Lin Shan’s point of view it is always present tense. But I haven’t checked throughout the book to see if that is so. There’s also an early passage with Ren Daiyan that is present tense too and that shifts to past tense. Is it the poetic voice that is present? That would be very interesting. I’ve seen reviewers on Amazon complain about the shifting tenses but that seems to me to be the product of lazy reading. Instead of asking why and seeking out patterns they just decide it’s senseless. While I haven’t deciphered the pattern, I’m confident there will be one and that when I unravel it, it will help me to better understand Kay’s project.

Another theme (Or maybe it’s just a different aspect of the memory history theme?) that preoccupies Kay not only in this novel but in most of his work is the fragility of civilization. Art, music, poetry, song– they flourish only in a certain kind of culture. And it seems like that culture is always under attack by forces that do not appreciate or value the arts. But the interesting thing about Kay is that as he shows these forces in tension, he doesn’t completely villainize the destroyers of culture. In RoS the horsemen of the plains are admirable men of action, harsh because of their environment, and in some ways more admirable than the weak courtiers who have lost the ability to act, who have become so distrustful of the military that they have made themselves into sitting ducks.

On the one hand you have the barbarians who have a virtue in being men of action. In not being soft. In being courageous. And bearing adversity. A strength and nobility that comes from fighting the elements and mastering a life of hardship and privation. They are beautiful in a sparse harsh way. And yet they do not understand beauty and music and culture. They are cruel and violent and merciless.

And then you have the men of the cities and gardens and fountains. The poets and artists. Who know beauty and art and the striving for virtue and for the good life. And who know how fragile this world they inhabit is. And yet there is in that world an excess, a softness. A decadence. Many of them have lost the ability to act. They also have lost sight of virtue. They are also cruel and merciless in their political intrigues. In their petty infighting.

There are those who live on the edge. Who seek the way if virtue and strive to sustain the culture to preserve it and restore what has been lost. To purify and replant what has become decayed. But it is too late. They cannot save the world they live from the barbarians.

The rise and fall of civilization. The fragility of beauty and art, balancing in the cusp between barbarism and decadence. How easily it tilts from one to the other. How impossible to prevent collapse. And when the time comes even the cultured have only shards to cling to. How can you make real beauty in the ruins?

And so the question becomes: what is the role of culture, of the historian or storyteller or poet? How do they civilize and tame the violence and cruelty? Can they ever really tame it, or will violence always find a way, just less obvious under a veneer of civilization?

It’s interesting how he varies the theme of the barbarians at the gates.
In Tigana the Ygraethans are actually very cultured. They aren’t barbarians except in that they totally destroy Tigana’s civilization.

In Lions of Al Rassan, the desert peoples are the unwanted allies of the decadent Asharites.
But in River there is this much stronger dichotomy, the barbarians without who have no appreciation for the culture of Kitai, and the emperor and court who have no appreciation for the art of war and the strength necessary to maintain culture.

It’s very interesting how he moved from the idea of Rakoth Maugrim as destroyer of worlds immediately to the idea of the human heart in conflict with itself, the unraveller within.
But the theme is his constant: how civilization unravels. How things fall apart. The ways in which we undo all that we have accomplished. How fragile the conditions for art and culture to flourish.

I wish I had the leisure to write a book length dissertation on Kay. Whence the obsession with unravelling? Does it relate to Jewishness? I’m really fascinated about how faith shapes his imaginative worlds. The fragility of civilization is certainly something the Jews know. And what it means to survive when the barbarians have won and you’ve been scattered to the four corners.
Again and again and again. Clinging to identity and memory when everything is dust. The Temple destroyed. By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept, remembering Zion. How can we sing Zion’s songs in an alien land?

And what when that identity is so meshed with religion but religion is uncomfortable, scary, untrustworthy as a construct in this postmodern age? When you’ve been told that religion is responsible for all wars and all evil. Well clearly Kay doesn’t buy into that lie. But it’s haunting him even so, isn’t it? He’s writing from the perspective of the conquered, isn’t he? Most of us belong to a civilization that conquered. Even Christians are a dominant civilization.

A couple of passages I noted:

“Some writers later, describing the events of that night and day, wrote that Wan’yen of the Altai had seen a spirit-dragon of the river and become afraid. Writers do that sort of thing. They like dragons in their tales.”

“A storyteller, guessing at or finding certainty within, can offer the thoughts of a war-leader as he ordered a retreat after ordering an advance. Honourable historians record events as best they can and, often challenging each other, suggest the consequences. There is a difference.”

But sometimes storytellers want to inhabit certainty. They assume more than mortals ought. A tale-spinner by a hearth fire or gathering a crowd in a market square, or putting brush to paper in a quiet room, deep into his story, the lives he’s chronicling, will deceive himself into believing he has the otherworldly knowledge of a fox spirit, a river spirit, a ghost, a god.

He will say or write such things as, ‘The boy killed in the Altai attack on the Jeni encampment was likely to have become a great leader if his people, one who could have changed the north.’

Or, ‘Lu Mah, the poet’s son, was one whose personal desire would have kept him living quietly, but his sense of duty and his great and growing wisdom would have drawn him to the court. He was lost to Kitai, and that made a difference.’

However boldly someone says this, or writes it, it remains a thought, a wish, a desire, longing spun of sorrow. We cannot know. . . .

. . . We look back and we look ahead, but we live in the time we are allowed.

I really want to come back to some of these ideas… but I also just want to post this so I can move on to Under Heaven which just arrived today.

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  • I recently finished River of Stars for the first time, with the benefit of having read Under Heaven fairly recently. Since I read them both on Kindle, I kept a post-it inside my cover to help keep track of characters.

    I know you are on to something with Kay’s tense-switching. I noticed it, but didn’t think to track it. I guessed he’s been around long enough he can argue with his editors to do whatever the heck he wants. Like when he writes sentence fragments. Which often start with which. That only now after reading a half-dozen of his books (again, thanks to you), I’ve become used to them.

    I was particularly delighted, too, by Kay’s talking about how the historians that would record the people and events. In what history I have read, the stories sometimes get convoluted with myth. Also, history was often viewed as only useful if it were instructive. So I really appreciated Kay’s nod to that. Likewise, the idea that Qi Wai found a TerracottaWarrior was a nice touch.

    The funny thing about spoilers with these books, though, is that even with all his liberties, Kay does not deviate from the main story line. The Song Dynasty did retreat to Hangzhou. The acting emporer left his father and brother in captivity in the north. I hoped, if only for Ren Daiyuan, that Kay’s liberties might have stretched a bit further.

    I’m excited to see where he takes the next volume, if indeed he is writing a loose trilogy.

    • Gah! I had a reply mostly written and then my computer restarted and I lost it.

      I’m re-reading Under Heaven now and I’d forgotten how lovely it it. Now I’m wondering if the ghosts in RoS aren’t a nod to continuity of some kind with the ghosts that feature so prominently in the beginning of Under Heaven. And thinking again about the poem that was re-written on the wall and whether that is linked to the ghost of the young woman that Lu Chen keeps seeing.

      I seem to recall that Kay did some tense switching in the Sartantium books too and maybe in Last Light of the Sun and Ysabel? I want to go back and reread them all to see if I can make sense of a bigger pattern. I do think it’s more than mere caprice.

      I have to confess I’ve never been bothered by sentence fragments. I think in fragments and have had to learn to eliminate them in formal writing but still cling to them in informal settings. Like blog posts. So I don’t tend to notice them unless I’m looking. Fragments beginning with which are hallmark of Preserved Killick in Patrick O’Brien’s Aubery and Maturin series (another one I wish I had time to re-read!)

      I love the intersections between history and myth. The first Latin class I took in college was Livy and he’s delightful the way her reports legends and myths in order to confuse the narrative and to make a rhetorical point. Kay’s self-conscious exploration of myth, history, and poetry is for me the main draw of these two Kitan books. I can see why so many Amazon reviewers hated them, though. That won’t necessarily grab every reader. But many people’s objections seem to be the result of lazy reading. They don’t try to understand why Kay makes the choices he makes but dismiss them without any consideration. Anyway, I probably shouldn’t read the Amazon reviews, but sometimes they get me started on interesting lines of thought.

      I’m not very well read at all in Chinese history so the fact that Kay cleaves so close to the original is known to me only from gleaning it from reviews. I suppose it wouldn’t bother me if I did know the history though. What Kay is doing isn’t really alt-history, much as his critics might wish he were. He’s using a fantasy world to delve into the characters in a way he wouldn’t feel free to with historical fiction for ethical reasons. To me it’s an interesting constraint that he’s set himself: to tell the story without deviating from the historical record but really making the characters and the place live for the reader. I read an interesting interview with him, talking about the ghosts and folklore. He said that for the people who lived then the ghosts and spirits and gods were real. But for the modern reader who doesn’t believe it’s hard to really enter into that mindset. The fantasy element makes them as real for the reader as they are for the characters. Of course these really aren’t fantasy novels in the same way that Tigana or Finavar are. He’s really moved away from fantasy and is doing his own thing, which I find refreshing. It’s interesting to me that here you don’t have the allusions to Finavar. Except maybe the idea of the River of Stars itself perhaps conveys something of that idea of a lost world?

      It would be lovely if there were a third book. A loose trilogy has potential to continue some of the themes and to develop them further.

  • I’ve been trying to get back to read this post all week. I dropped Kay many years ago when I couldn’t get through Sailing to Sarantium; I’m not sure why I couldn’t get into that book, even after several attempts, but that was about the point when we were early into our homeschooling and I began to have a lot of babies. In order to sleep at night, I had to give up reading novels at night, or else I would stay up too late and then be unable to function when little people got up in the wee dark hours of the morning. So Kay was pushed to the side, even though (Sarantium aside) he was one of my favorite authors.

    I thought it was interesting what you said about Kay’s themes being unraveling, because I can see it in his early books, looking back now, but I’m not sure I paid too much attention to it then… I think it wasn’t what I immediately loved about his books. I think what drew me in initially were his characters (I began with The Summer Tree) and the way he interwove mythology and history and this world and those other, imaginary, magical worlds together. I probably found it so inspiring because those were the kinds of stories I wanted to write, and in fact, I think I owe Kay a huge debt, because those are the kinds of stories I *do* write, although not in the deft way that he does, of course. (I took a break with the writing, too, so — just trying to get back into it now and shaking off the rust.)

    Anyway, thanks for sharing your thoughts… I think I’ll be digging into all the Kay books I’ve missed in the past several years, which is a nice prospect!

    • Yes, I love the interweaving of mythology and history. The Fionavar Tapestry is so rich. Even if the writing is sometimes a little uneven. And now that you mention it, I suppose it is telling that the villain there has the epithet of The Unraveler. I know what you mean about giving up reading novels. I’m finding I have to take long breaks between them or it eats up all my time and attention. I have a dream of going back and re-reading Kay and blogging every book. And then doing the same for Dorothy Dunnett. But I know a systematic book blogging project is really right out for right now.

      Do please come back and share your thoughts on Kay as you read. I’m always, always up for long book discussions about Kay especially.