Who is this Guy Gavriel Kay and how does he hijack my imagination so easily?
In my review of Kay’s Under Heaven, the 2010 American Library Association Best Fantasy Novel, I asked, “How is he ever going to top this book?” The answer, with as much certainty as I can express, is River Of Stars.
I believe this to be true because the fate of the hero, Ren Daiyan, caused me sleepless frustration. The last story to do that to me, as childish as it sounds, was The Empire Strikes Back. To the point of insomnia, I resented how my hero, Han Solo, got frozen in carbonite. Perhaps I can be excused for getting so irrational as a kid, an unintentional reaction to a powerful ending. But now, as an adult, I can’t help myself. I resent how Ren Daiyan is treated at the end. This is a story about a hero who is thwarted from acting heroically, so he must express his heroism in other, frustrating ways.
I admit, there may be lovers of Kay’s work who might disagree with my certainty about this novel’s excellence. After all, River of Stars opens by eliciting disappointment: the Long Wall is overrun and in disrepair, the Fourteen Prefectures in Under Heaven’s Ninth Dynasty belong to another empire, and what remains of Kitai has undergone a cultural shift where the service of a soldier is no longer a noble pursuit. Men do not know how to use a sword at court anymore, which is a tragic departure from the Ninth when heroes have victorious sword battles in satisfying ways.
Moreover, River of Stars’ Twelfth Dynasty is a shadow of the Ninth, where Stone Drum Mountain is now ruled by barbarians. That means no more Kanlin, those mystical warriors who remind me of the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon with their ability to scale walls. There is no sense of fun in this novel, which is the consequence of reading about a rotting empire. Yet Kay has a greater purpose as he draws the reader into his fictional world - a reflection of China’s Song Dynasty. To understand Kay’s grand design, from my point of view, is to focus on his metaphors of peonies (flowers), calligraphy (writing), and gardens (planting).
When Kay describes the Peony Festival in the city of Yenling, I think those who are ignorant about peonies, like myself, will wonder why he is spending so much time writing about this flower. So to my great embarrassment, I asked my wife if we had any peonies in our flower beds. She pointed to the dirt circle in the corner of our front yard. My jaw dropped. That’s my favorite flower bed to watch in the spring. Clusters of scarlet shoots pop out of the ground in four places near the perimeter of the bed’s circumference - as if at the three/six/nine/twelve positions of a clock. As spring moves forward these scarlet shoots grow taller, firmer, until they burst into a greenery that connects together like a wreath decorated with tight white buds. And as summer comes nearer, these white buds will burst open as wondrous peonies. The greenery fills the entire bed. There is no empty space.
And this is how I understand Kay’s subtle meaning. Our peonies, when in full bloom, are like the Ninth Dynasty. The whole empire is connected. There is no empty space. The imperial flower of the Ninth is the peony, a voluptuous flower. It is a time when the feminine is found in the Peacock Throne, an Empress is allowed to sit in it. But in River of Stars during the Twelfth Dynasty, the peacock is replaced by the masculine Dragon Throne. There is no more possibility of an Empress to sit in it. And the imperial court disregards the peony as too feminine.
Into this context comes Lin Shan, who is raised in Yenling, the home of the Peony Festival. Her father, without the benefit of a son to educate, teaches her instead. And in this way she is a reflection of the Ninth Dynasty, when a woman could study the arts of reading and writing, or even the martial arts of the Kanlin. But in the Twelfth Dynasty she is hated for her education. Only poets and artists appreciate her talents. Lin Shan even writes a song that ends, “No, I will not refuse to drink with you. This flower will not be like any other.” She thinks of herself as the peony, which makes her like no other woman of her time. She will express her talents despite the cultural taboos, including her mastery of calligraphy. And it is her brush strokes that help to elevate her into an unlikely circumstance.
I had no idea that calligraphy, as introduced by Lin Shan, could have meanings beyond a literal reading of what’s written on paper. Curved and stylized brush strokes impart their own nuanced meanings. Even the emperor has his own Slender Gold calligraphy in which he uses thirteen brush strokes for the word “garden.” And this is critical for understanding Ren Daiyan’s fate. His destiny is written in such calligraphy, but there is nuance not obvious to the reader. To understand these brush strokes of destiny, I go back to a poet’s garden in Yenling at the beginning of the book. Xi Wengao, one of the most respected people in Kitai, is visited by Lin Kuo, the father of Lin Shan. The reader finds that Xi Wengao has “curved all the paths when he designed his small garden, just as they were curved or angled at court. Demons could only travel a straight line.”
And it is the architects of the court’s garden, the Genyue, who are following a demonic straight line to power. They please their artistic emperor with a Flowers and Rocks Network. They make the Genyue into an unnatural place, a conceived paradise of idealized beauty. Men die and are injured by moving the “rock mountain” from a lake into the garden. Nightingales do not survive the winter after being exported from the south. And an important grave site is desecrated by uprooting a special tree. By having birds, massive rocks, and trees uprooted in order to populate the emperor’s garden, I cannot help but see an uprooting of the Ninth Dynasty, the demonic result of drawing straight lines to power. Any equality women once enjoyed, or honor men derived from being soldiers, is likewise uprooted. The men of Twelfth Dynasty’s court become the plastic surgeons of their day. When they bring a woman to sing in the garden for the emperor, she cannot walk on her own feet. Because the Twelfth is a time in which foot binding is seen as a fashionable trend to enforce women’s submissiveness.
This cultural decay and naked pursuit of self interest is what arrests Ren Daiyan’s heroic actions. He has a chance to follow a straight path as well, but he refuses! That’s what drove me to insomnia. I wanted his destiny, so straight forward, to be fulfilled. But Kay did not give me that, and I salute him for it. The brush strokes in Ren Daiyan’s destiny have a subtle meaning. For the good of the empire, a perennial seed must be planted in the garden of the Kitai. It has to be a seed that will survive, despite all hardship. The seed must be a peony, a hardy spring flower. Like my own peony bed, the legacy of Ren Daiyan must survive ice storms and drought, late frosts and torrential rains. His memory must not be uprooted so that the garden can flower into full bloom once more.
River of Stars is more than it seems, just as those dots of light in night sky can be entire galaxies and clusters of galaxies. And to Kay’s credit, I no longer draw straight lines when I see the Big Dipper. I draw curves as I connect the starry dots. And I bet if I stare at this cosmic calligraphy night after night, season after season, I might just see how the river of stars flows through the celestial garden.
By Mark Schelske