Under Heaven. Though shifting the clock ahead a few dynasties, from the Tang to the Song, one wondered what new material he might bring to the table. It turns out, a degree of significance.
With the latter days of the Tang Dynasty as its inspiration, Under Heaven portrayed a mid-rank military commander given an unspeakably powerful gift, two-hundred and fifty Arabian war horses, and the influence he (and they) had on events in the kingdom as they played out. History was ever-present in the shadows of the prose, but by and large the characters and the drama of their stories were the heart driving the novel. River of Stars possesses a similar focus on character and drama (what Kay novel doesn’t?), but the weight of history emerges from the shadows into the light. The scales not swinging wildly to the other side, River of Stars nevertheless feels driven by tides of fate rather than character agency, resulting in a more encompassing hold on the setting and the people within.
From acts of heroism as a teenager to his time amongst outlaws, Ren Daiyun has a pulse beating within him: to restore the glorious Kitai empire to its former glory by delivering the lost fourteen prefectures, currently occupied by barbarians to the north, to his emperor. His desires confirmed in a chance meeting with a fox-woman one lonely walk through ancient tombs, only the reality of time awaits to see if his destiny will be fulfilled. Lin Shan, daughter of a mid-level civil servant who has received an education far and above most women of her era, resides at the Kitai court with her husband, a cousin to the emperor. Decadence abound, the emperor and her husband pursue personal interests in painting and poetry, archeology and music, while on the distant grasslands the kingdom’s now depleted armies and weak leaders attempt to retake the fourteen prefectures. Real news kept from the emperor, when the Kitai ruler accidentally learns of a major defeat of his army, he becomes livid, and demands action. The dynasty thrown to the winds in the aftermath of his anger, people like Lin Shan and Ren Daiyun learn just how much flotsam and jetsam humanity is under heaven’s gaze.
A lot of Kay’s novels may be described as tapestries, but in River of Stars the effect is perhaps at its strongest. Where Under Heaven was largely a linear story (with side stories tributary as needed), River of Stars operates for the majority of its length in overview mode. Something akin to but not precisely a historical perspective, the story flows in a broad sweep, pushing ahead and driving under its characters—as the title hints. There are a few characters which may be described as main characters (namely Ren and Lin), and indeed the narrative follows their situations, choices, and reactions, but overall the story lens has been zoomed out to take in the larger view, with significant skips and jumps in time, to make for a different reading experience than what Under Heaven 2 might have been. (The theme of Daoism would have been a nice undercurrent to such a story, but, alas Kay did not include it—not a complaint, as what is included is sufficient to present theme, just a lament.)
And lastly, I would be remiss in my (homemade) education on Chinese classics if I did not mention the parallel between River of Stars and the canonical Chinese novel The Water Margin (aka Outlaws of the Marsh and various other names). The hero of The Water Margin’s named Song Jiang, his character arc is echoed in River of Stars by Ren Diayun’s. Their starting, mid, and end points of main concern, each novel’s aim flows naturally from the path the two men lead (are lead?) through life—the political associations, friendships, goals, and, of course, their ultimate fates.
In the end, River of Stars may very well be Kay’s greatest achievement to date (The Last Light under the Sun and The Lions of Al-Rassan are close competition). Using the historical leanings of epic fantasy and a tapestried structure to comment upon the import of history in the human context, Kay interweaves a typical Kay drama of aristocracy and dynasty to tell a rich, engaging story. A broader, grander novel, River of Stars is set in the same context as Under Heaven but is that little bit heavier, burdened as it is with the full weight of history, which in turn allows the story to apply a little more pressure on reader enjoyment.