River Of Stars (Under Heaven #2), by Guy Gavriel Kay
This book was a deeply moving and sad one. Interestingly enough, the author takes as his inspiration a tragic period in Chinese history when the folly of the Song Dynasty’s rulers led to an attempt to use barbarians against barbarians in the attempt to recover territory that was under the rule of Liao dynasty only to end up losing even more territory to the Jurchens, a process that this book describes painfully and in some detail, pointing out the brutality of the barbarians who sought to conquer China as well as the dangerous results of military weakness in a dangerous world. Over and over again this book explores the lack of martial valor of the Song Chinese, called the Twelfth Dynasty here, showing how bureaucratic excellence could not entirely overcome military weakness when those who had military skill were viewed with such mistrust. This volume, which has some marked historical parallels with the history of 12th Century China, is definitely tragic, as the main characters pursue their interests and longings with the full knowledge that it is likely to end very badly, and the fairy tale ending cannot overcome the deep sorrow of what precedes it.
This sprawling work of more than 600 pages largely tells the story of a small group of people during the transition point between the Northern and Southern Song Dynasty. The lead character, Ren Daiyan, begins as a bright young boy whose chance encounter with some bandits leads him to become an outlaw. Meanwhile, he recruits a disgraced soldier who becomes a trusted second-in-command as they rise and eventually return to the service of a beleaguered China seeking to recover lost lands despite a lack of martial fervor in the country. Meanwhile, China’s emperors are immensely spoiled and power is divided between conservatives and progressives who are both deeply interested in bureaucratic power and neglectful of the military, to say nothing of the common people who suffer frequent famines and massive civil disorder. This disorder only becomes worse as a new barbarian tribe overthrows their overlords and brings death and destruction to the northern and middle part of China and is only barely staved off thanks to the efforts of Daiyan. Also, there are court poets and eunuchs and a feminist character whose lack of feminine graces pushes her to be married to a gay antiquities collector while she has an affair with Daiyan (unsurprisingly enough). Needless to say, this cannot end well and it does not end well, with a weight of tragedy as a ninth son seeks to establish his place in the aftermath of catastrophe even as his elder brother and father live disgraced in captivity.
In reading this novel as the second novel of the author’s I have finished so far, I think that the author’s approach is not really fantasy literature so much as supernatural literature. There is little magic to be found here, although the main character has an encounter with a fox girl who is clearly demonic and there is a picture of a dramatic exorcism here as well and certainly a great deal of thought about the relationship between the living and the dead as far as ghosts are concerned. The author takes a great deal of interest in ghosts, including ancestral ghosts and the importance of honoring one’s ancestors, and this provides a supernatural rather than a fantasy angle to his novels. This book carries a heavy weight, though, the weight of the heaviness of fate and destiny and the way it can be shaped in small chance occurrences, and how it is that someone’s loyalty can be misinterpreted and become the source of ruin. The author can also be praised for the way that he seeks to make the Prime Minister of the first Southern Song Emperor less of a villain while making the emperor himself more of one. Sometimes history is not just or fair, sadly.