Funny how it took a novel by a Canadian fantasy writer to get me interested in my own cultural history once more.
River of Stars is a book that defies easy categorisation. It is at once a work of historical fiction, and at the same time, a work of fantasy. It is set in an alternate version of China, known as Kitai, during the time of its 12th dynasty, which is a shoe-in for the Song. But China is more than just the inspiration for the book’s setting. The events and characters that populate River of Stars have analogues in real history too. The central historical event in River of Stars is an dramatised and fictionalised account of the turbulent epoch of the Jin-Song wars, and the deeds of the book’s characters are essentially dramatised re-imaginings of the lives of their real-life counterparts. For example, the character arc of our protagonist, Ren Daiyan, is similar in theme and substance to the stories that propagate about Yue Fei, a contemporary Chinese folk hero.
But Kitai is not China. It is not so much an alternate history of China as it is a parallel but distinct version of China. There is a subtle fantasy element present in the book, drawn from Chinese mythology. In River of Stars, mythology melds with history in a more visceral way than in the actual folk tales from which it draws its inspiration. Unlike the folk tales, in which magical events could have been fanciful interpretations of actual events, muddled by the obfuscation of time and the superstitious beliefs of the story’s purveyors, in River of Stars there is an air of immediacy to the storytelling. This makes it more intimate and grounded.
At the same time, however, Kay, by adapting the famous folk-tale of a hero venerated by generations of Chinese, is able to leverage on the telling of a story powerful enough to have persisted in cultural memory. While the broad thematic strokes of that story are essentially unchanged from the source material, the specifics of the story – in character and plot – are the author’s own. At most, Kay makes references to the various elements of Yue Fei’s legend, but these are plot elements that he uses to underscore the ways in which stolid history can turn into fanciful legend in the telling. The authorial voice constantly reminds us of its role as a storyteller, a dramatic reteller of a series of historical moments, but fashioned into a story with thematic coherence, and with a beginning, middle and end.
The result of this effort is a novel that is both mythic and intimate. It is an adaptation an old Chinese tale that benefits from a decidedly Anglophone sensibility. There is both a sense of historical verisimilitude, as well as narrative coherence. The use of an alternate historical milieu in Kitai is an attempt to assure the viewer that Kay is not engaging in cultural appropriation, but is rather paying homage to the Chinese historical mythos, and introducing it to a Westernised audience.
Kay’s limpid, but almost musical prose complements the setting perfectly. It’s fitting that a culture that holds its poetry in such high regard should be described so elegantly.
In many ways, River of Stars reminds me that history can often be more fantastic than fantasy. Western fantasy often relies, however unknowingly, on the tropes generated by their own cultural and historical contexts. Knights, inns, Campbellian heroes, chivalry and the norms of knighthood, courtly romance – these are tropes we take for granted in fantasy.
In contrast, the social and cultural mores of the Kitai 12th dynasty seem fresh and strange. A society that values decorum, that is steadfastly bureaucratic and technocratic, disdaining and fearing its military even as it is forced to rely on it to defend it from the barbarians from the North – even as these elements describe the reality of Song Dynasty China, they also seem doubly exotic to readers habituated to the norms of Western fantasy.
River of Stars reminds me of just how rich Chinese history and culture can be, and how it can serve as a rich treasure trove for universal stories, when re-told with contemporary narrative techniques for a more universal audience.
I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 magic fox tattoos