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River of Stars    by Guy Gavriel Kay order for
River of Stars
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Order:  USA  Can
Roc, 2013 (2013)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Like Kay's previous Under Heaven, River of Stars is set in the realm of Kitai, but four centuries later. This new work is inspired by the Song Dynasty in China. Under Heaven ended in a conflagration of civil war, that has left the Emperor and his advisors wary of military power. This has resulted in the appointment of ineffectual generals, and Kitai has lost a great deal of territory (the Fourteen Prefectures below the Long Wall). Kitai soldiers fight Kislik barbarians to the northwest and the Empire pays tribute to the Xiaolu to the north.

Though there are many intriguing characters in this novel, two stand out as leads. Ren Daiyan, the second son of a records clerk, dreams a 'fierce bright dream of military prowess, of regaining honour and glory for Kitai', and has secretly trained from childhood. Fate sends him to guard and impress an imperial magistrate of Kitai, a man who will facilitate his later successes. Before that happens though, he joins outlaws, wins a position of leadership amongst them, and earns the loyalty of ex-military officer Zhao Ziji who becomes his key subordinate.

The other main character is Lin Shan, a gentle scholar's only daughter. Given a boy's education by her father, she has developed as a talented poet. Her father has betrothed her to Qi Wi of the Imperial clan, a collector of ancient steles and bronzes and 'a man he believes will accept what she is'. When her kind father's life is threatened by court politics, Lin Shan takes action that brings her to the emperor's attention and eventually leads her path to intersect with that of Ren Daiyan.

For the latter does achieve much of what he dreamed of, but is constantly hindered by the imperial distrust of military leaders. And, as in Robert Graves' Count Belisarius, though he earns the love and loyalty of his soldiers, Ren Daiyan is eventually betrayed by those in authority. He faces a hard choice, and not all readers will agree with his decision.

It's a wonderful story, like all its predecessors and it ends beautifully. If you enjoy historical fantasy, don't miss Guy Gavriel Kay's brilliant novels, especially his two Kitai books, Under Heaven and River of Stars.

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