Empires rise and fall, men and women live and die, and entire histories can turn on events of the tiniest significance. Above, the river of stars passes over us, marking out eternity without the least concern for humanity's deeds, good or evil. Impermanence, and our attempts to defeat it either through great achievements or the building of legend, is the theme that serves as a foundation for Guy Gavriel Kay's majestic River of Stars. This isn't a sequel to Under Heaven, but a stand-alone story set in its universe, roughly 400 years after its events, in a land still bearing the scars of those events. If anything can be said to be more or less permanent, it's humanity's follies.
As he's done in most of his novels, Kay creates a fantasy realm closely based upon an actual one — here, Kitai stands in for Song dynasty China — and in which any fantasy elements play a very minor role. Sometimes, like the ghosts who appear from time to time to poet Lu Chen, they are merely observers, gazing upon the world in which they got to spend too short a time, silently seeming to implore whomever notices them, "Do not let me be forgotten." Sometimes, like the fox spirit encountered by Ran Daiyan, they may attempt to seduce the hero away from his destiny. The fantastic, in Kay's worlds, always exists to provide a kind of commentary upon the actions of his human protagonists. Kay is less a traditional fantasist than a cryptohistorian, and if the genre can be said to have a great one, Kay's the man.
Centuries have passed, and Kitai is a diminished empire. It has lost no fewer than fourteen of its northernmost prefectures to the Xiaolu, the Mongol-like tribes Kitai warred against in Under Heaven. Kitai's military has lost so much of its edge that outright incompetence is the norm. Though they continue to launch sorties against the Xiaolu, the commanders of one such attack commit such a stupefying blunder that it helps set the stage for epoch-making events that emerge later in the novel. River of Stars becomes the elegiac story of how a diminished empire will be diminished even more, and not always by external enemies.
Kitai's emperor Wenzong barely concerns himself with the world around him. Cloistering himself in his palace, he devotes his energies to art, poetry, and the construction of a garden so magnificent it's practically its own ecosystem. One could almost praise Wenzong for wanting to leave behind a legacy of beauty and creation rather than war and destruction, were it not for the fact that the exercise is solely one of self-gratification and comes at the expense of actual governance and protection of his people. Gathering many of the trees, fauna, and enormous boulders that decorate the garden has been an exercise requiring enormous manpower, at the cost of property destruction and even human lives — a fact about which Wenzong is happily oblivious. Were it not for overhearing the weeping of one of his gardeners, he'd never even have learned about the disastrous military campaign against the Xiaolu, the one in which a key, very drastic mistake was made.
Things change gradually, not rapidly, but with the ominous inevitability of fate. At the center of events are a man and a woman, who will naturally be drawn together despite disparate backgrounds and class distinctions that would ordinarily keep their paths from ever crossing. Ren Daiyan began life as the son of a clerk in a city far to the west. But he's always been one of those men who are certain they are marked by destiny for great things. As I have heard people say, it ain't narcissism if you can actually pull it off. Ren begins his career as a bandit, wangles a position in Kitai's military, and rises quickly through the ranks until he finds himself in the emperor's court, as the one man who might make a difference in unfolding events. The woman is Lin Shan, the daughter of a minor court gentleman. In a land where many daughters are still exposed at birth, Lin's doting father has educated her beyond the decorum of the day. And though her intellect scandalizes convention, her skills at calligraphy, poetry and song forms, all of which appeal to the aesthete emperor, have made her a court favorite.
If only beauty had lasting value in a barbaric world. The Xiaolu are not Kitai's only problem. Ren will find that destiny is going to give him exactly what he wanted all his life, only that the story will not unfold as his youthful dreams imagined it. Little happens that is fair or just. But among the Kitai, it's not easy to find any one villain to whom we can easily assign blame. (The invaders are more unambiguous villains, and what's a book without at least a few of those?) There are times when Ren's duty requires him to do something absolutely insane, but you must admire his sense of duty all the same. It is easy to dislike Wenzong for ignoring the barbarians at the gates, not caring to be a responsible protector of his people. But it's hard to be entirely unsympathetic toward his dismay as the beauty and harmony he has strived to create is threatened. It is easy to hate the men who conspire behind the scenes, but you also understand the political motives behind their actions. It isn't so much that people don't make sense. It's that the world often does not, and in striving to wrest some sense from it, we have to do things distasteful to us, sometimes things we know history will hate us for. But we have no other choice.
Filmmaking legend François Truffaut once said that it's impossible to make an effective anti-war movie, because movies always make war look exciting. Writers, I suppose, have more leeway. Kay writes battle scenes with much the same sense of poetic grace as his characters' more personal, introspective moments. There's a tangible sense of sorrow over humanity's march of folly. His narrative is always aware of the bitter ironies, as well as the fantastic good luck, that life's many moments of pure chance present us. Fate can turn on the most minor occurrence. An empire's fall can begin when a man is heard weeping in a garden. Above us, the river of stars flows on and on.