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Cecelia Holland reviews Guy Gavriel Kay


The master of the historical fantasy has found a canvas large enough for his ambitions. Guy Gavriel Kay’s second novel based on the Chinese past is his finest work so far, a vision of tremendous scope, achieved through precise, intimate observation of a brilliant culture in the throes of disintegration and rebirth. The Song Chao, splendid as only a great Chinese dynasty can be, was already struggling with some bad politics when the steppe barbarians began to break through in the 12th century.

Kay has chosen as the centerpiece of his novel the fall of Kaifeng, the capitol, (which he calls Hanjin) to such a raging horde, and his story is the tale of Ren Daiyan, the low-born general who led the resistance to the barbarians. But Kay isn’t interested simply in providing a narrative of events: what China (which he calls Kitai) offers this writer is a historical stage as defined and stylized as calligraphy, against which the actions of his characters can play out with much larger resonances.

The story opens in a world of ritual, manners, and reflection: ‘‘The Kitan liked order, numbering, symmetry, and they also liked the debates that followed.’’ The Emperor’s court is splendid and utterly artificial, but not fantastic: perfect replicas of reality, stripped of all the noise, like the Emperor’s garden, intended as a mirror of the world. In this self-regarded space, the smallest gesture seems enormous. The people themselves sometimes seem trapped in their costumes, interchangeable. A later scene, set in an ancient and half abandoned western capital, is an eerie progress through a world seemingly made for giants, and now inhabited by ants.

By the beginning of the novel, a steppe horde has already taken the northern part of the empire, the ancient homeland. Ren Daiyan, hero of River of Stars, devotes himself from boyhood to recovering these lost prefectures. Born the son of a minor provincial clerk, he becomes an outlaw, inveigles his way into the army, and rises steadily toward his goal of retaking the north. He falls in love with Lady Lin Shan, a poet, a favorite at court, and an intelligent woman in a world where women are allowed no power.

Shan gives Kay room to explore one of his ongoing interests – how women in societies that deny them power actually achieve it anyway; inside the carapace of social mores she operates as much like an outlaw as Daiyan does – watchful, shrewd, decisive. But the court is only part of Kitai, and an isolated and ill-informed part at that. An abundance of other characters pop in and out of the story: a ritual master, farmers, outlaws, bureaucrats, the whole busy world of an ancient and various culture, all sensed and entered into and inhabited.

Kay’s cagey use of time gives this an extraordinary depth. ‘‘He wasn’t the boy who had fought imagined barbarians in a bamboo grove, and yet, of course, he was and always would be.’’ The whole story, once Kay’s got the ground established, seems to move on three levels at once: present tense, memory, and foreshadowing. Again and again, Kay evokes all three in a single paragraph. The result is a novel that grows steadily richer in allusion, drawing the reader deeper into its meanings.

Did you truly taste anything later in life, have any experiences at all, except through the memory of other times, sometimes long ago?

An empire so old and vast drags its past after it like an anchor. For some of Kay’s people, the ancient glory of Kitai is corrupting, a justification for the infighting at the court, the arrogance of power, all expressed, like a Song era painting, in the manipulation of symbols: a gardener crying, a tree uprooted, the wrong word at the wrong time. For others, like Ren Daiyan, the glory is a challenge.

As the barbarians spill into the Empire, Daiyan takes that challenge. His tireless focus on recovering the lost lands drives him to victory when all the other generals fail, and brings him to the brink of the ultimate success: reviving the great, ancient Kitai, north and south together.

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

But the symmetry of Kitai is inexorable. Daiyan’s own strength becomes his weakness. The corrupt politics entraps him in his own virtues. In the end, it seems, half an empire is good enough. One hero is worth two emperors. There are two cups of poison. Two possible outcomes. And a book you don’t want to be over.

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