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REVIEW: River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Dear Mr. Kay,

I’ve been a fan of your books since I read The Lions of al-Rassan and lamented the fact that it was a standalone. While I haven’t read every GGK book published, I’ve read enough to know that they are part of an impressive and imaginative body of work. When I learned that River of Stars could be read on its own, even though it is set in the same world as its predecessor, Under Heaven, I requested it for review and I’m so glad I did. Not every authorial choice worked for me, but it was absolutely a pleasure to be in the hands of a master stylist and storyteller.

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel KayRiver of Stars is set in a 12th Century country, Kitai, whose characteristics are drawn from the history of the Song Dynasty of China, but it is rightly called a historical fantasy rather than a historical novel. The main characters and the overall story arc are based on real people and events, but the book neither fictionalizes real life individuals nor drops made-up characters into real-life events. This allows the author to create relationships and events that did not exist without pulling the reader who has knowledge of the history out of the story. I wish more authors would think of their historicals this way (when appropriate, obviously), because it frees both the author and the reader to enter the world without thinking about what it does and doesn’t have to contain.

There aren’t many of the standard markers of traditional fantasy. There are events and circumstances that don’t fit into a strictly rational conception of the world, but they seem completely reasonably within the worldview of the actors. I enjoyed this way of situation the book in the fantasy genre, but readers looking for a more traditional “fantasy” read might want to take note.

It’s difficult to say much about the plot without giving away one of the great pleasures of reading an epic novel, which is watching the complicated cast of characters and the events unfold. Over the last couple of centuries, Kitai has become a truncated version of its former, more expansive dynastic self, with uncultured but powerful warriors to the north and a well-meaning emperor who leaves day to day policy making to his advisors. Not surprisingly, this creates both factional conflict and increasing hardship for his people. Simmering discontent bubbles to the surface and leads to open warfare, within and across Kitai’s borders.

For romance readers, there is a slowly developing relationship between two of the main POV characters. At the beginning we meet Ren Daiyan, the younger son of a relatively minor civil servant, who is training to become a warrior even though that is not a high-status occupation in Kitai (only the second or third sons of farmers go into the army). He achieves this goal, but in anything but a predictable way. We also meet Lin Shan, an unusually educated young woman who is a promising poet. Although they eventually develop a romantic relationship, they grow and mature separately and have individual experiences that recall epic romances of old rather than the kinds of stories common in the genre today. And the reader spends long stretches in the POV of other characters, some of whom come and go quickly while others recur regularly throughout the book.

Kay is justly known as much for his stylistic achievements as his plotting and characterizations, and River of Stars is no exception. The writing is lush and elegant, and there is a wealth of description. I tend to prefer spare prose, but when someone writes as well as this I enjoy the change of pace. And the descriptions aren’t superfluous; descriptions about the natural world do more than provide atmosphere, they signal the importance of that world in the lives of the characters and they foreshadow the role nature plays in man’s choices. For example, early in the book we get this description as Daiyan is making a journey from his village to the site of a murder:

There were nightingales in these woods. Daiyan’s brother had come here hunting them. In Hanjin, at the court, they wanted nightingales for some enormous garden the emperor was building. Officials paid considerable sums for them. It was folly, of course. How could a caged bird survive the journey from Szechen? They’d have to go downriver through the gorges, then by imperial courier north. If the couriers rode fast…the very idea of a birdcage bouncing by a saddle was sad and amusing, both. Daiyan liked nightingales. Some complained they kept you awake at night, but he didn’t mind that.

Those nightingales (and the enormous garden) turn out to be a harbinger of conditions that are critical to the story that unfolds.

This is not a book to hurry through, and that is both a strength and a weakness. It is a strength because aren’t we, as romance readers, frequently wishing for books that recall the epic romances we used to read? While the romance is just a part of the story here, River of Stars may well be closer to the epic romances of the 1970s and 1980s than today’s historicals are. On the other hand, there are a lot of POVs and story lines that come and go. A fascinating character pops up, only to vanish a few chapters later. And while Lin Shan is a terrific portrayal of a strong and interesting woman, there are quite a few characterizations of women that are more stereotypical.

Which brings me to my primary caveat about the book. This is a novel of ideas as much as an action drama, and the characterizations suffer somewhat. Even the main POV characters don’t feel as present, as alive, to me as they did in The Lions of al-Rassan or Tigana or Song of Arbonne. The story is about the fall and rise of a society, and the warp and weft of that societal change takes center stage; as a result, the characters sometimes feel primarily like players on that stage. They’re interesting and compelling, but their personal idiosyncrasies and desires feel subordinated to the larger tale.

Nevertheless, this is an engrossing read. It demands your attention, but once you sink into the story, it unfolds in a rich and satisfying way. Grade: B+

~ Sunita

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Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

38 Comments

  1. Angela
    May 22, 2013 @ 08:41:52

    I’ve been wanting to read Guy Gavriel Kay for a while now. I own Tigana, but it’s paperback so it sits on my shelf in favor of reading my Kindle. Maybe I’ll grab and start with this one.

  2. cbackson
    May 22, 2013 @ 08:50:35

    I am a huge GGK fan. Although Lions of Al-Rassan is my sentimental favorite and the one that I always recommend as a gateway GGK drug, the truth is that Tigana is the book that still, to this day, guts me. I don’t even know how to explain it to people, other than that it’s a masterpiece – not just of fantasy, but of literature. I didn’t know he had a new book out, so I can’t wait to pick this up!

  3. Sandyl
    May 22, 2013 @ 10:31:11

    I read Tigana when it was first published. It is such a tour de force that I am afraid to read it again. It is not for the faint of heart, but it is an amazing book.

  4. mari
    May 22, 2013 @ 10:47:33

    I’ve had Under Heaven for a long time now. I tried to read it once, but I couldn’t get into it. Based on this review and the comments, I think I will give it another try.

  5. Tina
    May 22, 2013 @ 11:27:16

    @cbackson:

    Oh my, it is so funny you say that Tigana ‘guts’ you because that is the exact same reaction I had when I used to think about it. But I did do a re-read recently (with much trepidation) and I found that although I was bracing for the emotional impact again (and still got it), it wasn’t quite as raw on re-read. I was able to enjoy the story more and felt …good…after I finished it.

    The Lions of Al-Rassin and a Song For Arbonne are what I classify as ‘perfect’ books. They simply hit on all cylinders.

    Also, I adore the fact that he doesn’t write long serials. I like that he writes stand-alones. I think his longest has a been a trilogy.

  6. Sunita
    May 22, 2013 @ 11:45:04

    I had to put Tigana and al-Rassan and the others consciously out of my mind when I started reading this. It’s hard to do, but GGK does not write the same book over and over, and I wanted to make sure I was fair to him.

    Mari, I had trouble getting into this one for the first few chapters. So much of what I read these days is shorter and less leisurely (for want of a better phrase), and I had to work harder than I expected to focus and lose myself in the book. I did, and it paid off handsomely for me. But I realized that (a) I *want* to be able to have more of those reading immersion experiences; and (b) I’m out of the habit.

  7. Lynnd
    May 22, 2013 @ 14:26:05

    I loved Rivervof Stars , but Tigana and Lions are still my favourites – they are my A+ books and comfort reads that I come back to time and again. River of Stars comes close. I think that I will have to re-read it again (and I will, several times) to grasp all af the nuances of the story.

  8. cayenne
    May 22, 2013 @ 14:44:07

    @Sunita and @mari, I recall reading an early and very unspoilery review that said that it took about 75 pages for River of Stars to get into gear, but to be patient because it was worth it – and the reviewer was right, because, hey, it’s GGK and the guy is the master of interwoven multiple plotlines and POVs that do require some setup, but the patience pays off big with RoS. Really, to be a GGK fan is to be forced to be patient because there’s such a long wait between books, but they’re so worth it. It takes a crazy kind of discipline to hold in your hands something you’ve desperately waited over four years for and NOT speed-read it, but you really need to read GGK carefully and thoughtfully – and immediately upon finishing, turn the book around and re-read it.

    I’ve always loved Lions and Sarantium best, with Arbonne a close third, and I only started to appreciate Tigana more as I’ve gotten older. When it first came out, the idea of the horror of Tigana’s ordeal did not resonate with me, though I appreciated the book as an amazingly written story, and it took a long time for all its nuances to fall into place. GGK’s writing is amazing and layered enough that I can still read Fionavar 30 years and countless re-reads later and still find something new.

  9. mari
    May 22, 2013 @ 16:40:29

    Huh. Thanks for all the clarification and the incentive to give it another try. Its true, I more used to easy gratification these days. But its good to give the less used, “gee, this hard but soooo worth it” muscles a work out. It is helpful to know the proper reading strategy, before getting annoyed.

  10. Keishon
    May 22, 2013 @ 17:25:24

    That cover is quite arresting. I’m not a fan yet. I’ll start with Tigana one day when I’m in the mood for a new writer. I already own it. Thanks for the review Sunita.

  11. Sirius
    May 22, 2013 @ 18:29:51

    OMG Sunita, you love Kay too. Tigana is probably amongst my ten favorite books of all genres. I love Song for Arbonne too – Urte is my favorite character. I cannot reread Lions because of the ending, I just can’t. I was however disappointed in two or three books he wrote after his books based on Bysantine . But of course his not as good books are still ten times better for me than many other books so I kept buying . I did not finish Under Heaven so was not sure about this one, but after I have read your review I am so there :). Thanks.

  12. Kaetrin
    May 22, 2013 @ 21:43:34

    I haven’t read Kay but maybe I should give him a go at some point. What would be the best (ie most romantic – with happy ending please) book to use as the gateway Sunita?

  13. Sirius
    May 22, 2013 @ 22:03:17

    @Kaetrin: Not Sunita, but will be curious too, because off the top of my head I do not remember a book of his which has completely happy ending. I mean, his books are usually epic, so there are certainly couples who do get their happy ending, but he is ruthless with the characters’ being alive :). In several of his books while I was not completely sad at the end and happy for many characters, my favorites were no longer alive at the end. Sunita, I am not naming any books, but if you feel this is spoilerish in itself feel free to delete.

    EDIT: I am ok with it because I would not say that any of his books is pure romance, they have some great and very memorable romantic storylines, but I would call them historical fantasies first and foremost, so for me different genre expectations apply.

  14. Kaetrin
    May 22, 2013 @ 22:07:22

    I can’t do no happy ending. Just can’t. No matter how otherwise wonderful the book is. I don’t mind not all sparkly rainbows and butterflies, but, as an example if Cordelia or Aral had died in Barrayar I would have been gutted and broken and unable to read Bujold again. So, I have strong feelings about (generally) happy endings. :)

  15. Adam
    May 22, 2013 @ 22:13:54

    As a GGK fan, I relate to your choices of Tigana, Arbonne, and Lions as all great starters of a GGK gateway entrance to his writing. If you haven’t read some of his other stuff, I highly recommend his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy which predates the favourites posted about here. They are a great read. Also, don’t forget his other books which are quite good as well: Sarantine Mosaic (duology – bysantine theme) and The Last Light of the Sun (viking theme)

  16. Sirius
    May 22, 2013 @ 22:18:31

    @Kaetrin: I completely understand (not many writers I take sad ending from these days), but I do not want to misinform you. Most of his books are not tragedies either, and you may not fell in love with the characters I did, you know? He has MANY characters in his best books and some of them are happy and together at the end. There is only one book of his I consider a tragedy and even there, I think there are two lovers that stay together, but there I felt that bad guys won in general hence me being very sad.

  17. BR
    May 23, 2013 @ 01:14:47

    GGK is one of my top three authors of all time, I fell in love with him with the Fionavar Tapestry and while there have been some books I havent adored (the Viking one frex) the majority of his work is amazing writing and there is nothing else like it.

    He doesnt really do HEA because these stories are not romances, they are stories based in myth or historical fact. He actually worked for 10 years with Tolkein’s son on his estate and absorbed a lot of classical fantasy mythology etc which is very evident when you read the Fionavar Tapestry (trilogy but not long books). It has the most classical romance themes and engagements in it and there is some HEA but it follows more the mythological theme rather than the type of ending a modern romance reader will expect. I say this so you understand its HEA with a twist, sometimes pretty gutwrenching (Fionavar reduces me to tears in two places, only beaten by the ending of Lions of Al-rassan which reduces me to a sobbing wreck for HOURS everytime I read it)

    I would recommend you start GGK with a standalone – Tigana is the most popular but its also got a strong fantasy basis. Song for Arbonne is a more balanced blend of fantasy and history and Lions swings more into the historical side of things. Any one of these three are outstanding novels in their own right.

    Under Heaven is the MOST fabulous book but unless you really enjoy slogging through beautiful poignant writing, slowly unfolding layers of plot and character development to a quiet but deeply satisfying ending I wouldnt start there.

    Ysabel can be read as a standalone but is really a followup to the Fionavar tapestry and quite fabulous – the best writing of a teenage boy I have personally experienced and a good contemporary YA with fantasy elements.

    GGK is not a light read, his stories have depth as do the characters, and they grow and evolve in all sorts of ways. His writing is an utter delight and unless you fully give yourself over to the story and immerse yourself in it, and soak it in, you are doing the book and yourself an injustice.

    He makes me laugh and cry, sometimes both at once, and his books hold pride of place on my bookshelves. You absolutely *should* try him, but be prepared to make a bit of commitment to the book, the quality of the writing demands it!

  18. Kaetrin
    May 23, 2013 @ 02:09:12

    I don’t have romance genre expectations with non romance. In romance I expect a HEA. In my fiction in general terms (not that there’s a great deal of non romance fiction in my reading), I’m after a happy ending. That’s different. It may not be romantic. In a crime thriller it means the crime is solved, the good guy wins and the bad guy gets it somehow, in a fantasy it means the quest is fulfilled and the world is saved (eg Lord of the Rings, Magician). If the ending is a downer, then a book is probably not for me.

  19. Q
    May 23, 2013 @ 04:55:41

    Hhhmmm…. I’m not sure I would read this book as Under Heaven was a DNF for me. I actually really like GGK, Tigana made me weep buckets, and I loved the Sarantium books.

    But Under Heaven made me uneasy. My problem with it was that it was labeled as a historical fantasy. If it had been historical fiction I would have liked it better. The main political events of the book were so close to history, in fact exactly like history that it made me wonder why GGK bothered to write it. What did he bring to this story? What was original and from his own imagination? If it had been historical fiction then I could have understood it but fantasy? Surely there should be something more?

    I actually felt slightly cheated and that he exploited Chinese history and packaged it as something original. It made me question the other books he’s written that I’ve really enjoyed. Did I enjoy the Sarantium books because I wasn’t as familiar with the history? How much integrity does he have as a writer? I know that sounds harsh but Under Heaven really did make me uncomfortable.

    I’m now really reluctant to read anymore of his books if they are set in an “alternate history” as I’m suspicious that they won’t actually be alternate at all.

  20. Sirius
    May 23, 2013 @ 06:17:14

    Kaetrin – sorry for misunderstanding. The word romantic threw me off and instead in my head I decided you want romance like happy ending :). Again not Sunita but I can personally recommend Tigana then – the quest is achieved and good guys do win. Song of Arbonne – same thing.

  21. Sunita
    May 23, 2013 @ 06:52:44

    @Kaetrin: I tend to recommend Song of Arbonne to romance readers looking for a first GGK, because when I read it, it felt the closest to romance, but it’s been a while since I read them. But as Sirius says, Tigana works well too, if you feel like reading something that is closer to fantasy.

  22. Sunita
    May 23, 2013 @ 07:22:07

    @Q: I thought about this issue a lot as I was reading the book and then as I was deciding what to include in the review. I think I understand where you’re coming from, but I have a different take on it.

    As I said in the review, I was pleased that he didn’t call it historical fiction. Chinese history before the 19thC is something I’m relatively ignorant about, but I wanted to get a sense of how close the historical record was to what he was writing, and for me (keeping in mind I didn’t read deeply in the history, just checked on major events and characters), it seemed that he compressed and shifted around time periods a bit and put characters into situations and relationships their real-life counterparts didn’t experience. So that’s why I thought historical fantasy was a better term, although it can be misleading to readers for whom it suggests there is more fantasy in the genre sense than there is.

    As for the exploiting of Chinese history, I didn’t think that he exploited it any more than he exploited the history of Moorish Spain or medieval Italy or France. He didn’t depict it as particularly exotic, which is what I was especially concerned about going in, and I was impressed at the way he played with certain stereotypes. For example, his depiction of the Emperor’s obsession with recreating nature in his garden at first felt as if it was indulging the stereotype of how Asians relate to nature. But as I read, I realized that he was treating this garden the way he might treat the building of a fantastically expensive palace in Europe. It was a royal obsession that had catastrophic consequences.

    I respect your concerns about exploitation, and I haven’t read Under Heaven so I can’t comment on that. But as I was reading, I thought about whether a similar story set in medieval India (about which I know quite a bit) would bother me, and I didn’t think it would. But everyone’s flash points are different.

  23. Q
    May 23, 2013 @ 09:03:22

    Hi Sunita,

    Apologies, “exploit” is a emotive word and perhaps I shouldn’t have used it.
    I didn’t mean that he mis-represented China of the time or “exploited” it for exoticism/orientalism. I actually thought he wrote very well of the period and it was refreshing to read a “positive” representation of China that didn’t make me feel patronised.

    It was more the lable “fantasy” that triggered more negative feelings towards the book. I just didn’t think it was original, he “exploited” Chinese history in the sense that he piggy backed off it to create a fantasy novel, it did the work for him. He didn’t have to use any imagination or world building as you would expect in a fantasy novel. The events, the personages, the customs etc were already there, in ancient China. Why bother going to the effort of changing the names, adding some small supernatural elements (which could have been explained by the superstitions of the time) and calling it fantasy? Just write a very good historical fiction book. That really puzzled me. To me, the whole exercise seemed a bit cynical.

    It does make me wonder whether the history/setting he used in his books set in Moorish, French, Italian “alt histories” were as derivative and should I have enjoyed them at all? What did GGK himself bring to those books?

    I guess I was very disappointed and disillusioned in the paucity of his imagination. As I said, if the book had been “historical fiction” I think I would have loved it. But I expect something more from fantasy.

    Also, I’m aware that we are talking about two different books here. I haven’t read River of Stars and you haven’t read Under Heaven :-) I might enjoy River of Stars more but I’m a bit wary of buying it.

  24. Sunita
    May 23, 2013 @ 09:59:46

    @Q: Ah, now I get it! I was worried about the pejorative kind of exploitation, so that’s why I responded as I did.

    I think the “fantasy” label does lead to confusion, but I would also argue that the difficulty and complexity of worldbuilding in historical fiction is underestimated. Even if you are presented with a comprehensive and complete historical record (which we rarely are), you still have to make decisions about how to abstract from that and how to make it come alive as fiction. And historical fiction writers are subject to a lot of examination about the authenticity and accuracy of the fictional representation. So I think that even though you are right that the historical record did some of the work for him, he still had to do a lot to make it work in the novel.

    That said, it is closer to historical fiction than to fantasy worldbuilding in the style of George RR Martin, who obviously draws on historical eras but then transforms them to create his fantasy world.

    And yes, of the books I’ve read by GGK, they seem to be based on the historical record, but the amount he adds varies by book in my opinion.

    Thanks for the comments! They gave me a chance to expand on points that were in my head when I was reading but didn’t know quite how to incorporate into the review itself.

  25. Q
    May 23, 2013 @ 10:12:15

    And thank you for your responses Sunita!
    This has given me a chance to discuss my viewpoint when I was wondering whether I’m the only one that this has even occurred to as I’ve not seen it discussed on any other website.

  26. Danielle
    May 23, 2013 @ 10:23:44

    @Q: I felt very similarly about Song Of Arbonne, which drew on mediaeval Provençal history (Occitan region of France) so heavily that I wondered where, exactly, his supposedly wonderful imagination was hiding. Haven’t gone back to the author since, but a decade has passed and I was recently thinking that perhaps it is time to bring him back in from the cold and give his books another try. He seems so well loved, yet I don’t want another experience like “Arbonne”.

  27. Q
    May 23, 2013 @ 12:17:12

    @Danielle: Yes! I’m not alone! :-)

    This is actually what I’m a little afraid of as I enjoyed Song of Arbonne but I don’t know anything about Provencal history. Now I feel a bit cheated and suspicious of all his previous alt history books.

    It wouldn’t be so bad if he just drew on customs, after all the Kushiel books are set in a recognisable renaissance France, Venice etc. But to use actual events and historical personages as main characters really jars for me in a fantasy novel.

    Even one of the more unbelievable bits in Under Heaven, where you would think he had actually made it up, he didn’t. The concubine Yang Gui Fei (who he based Wei Jian on) really did adopt the General An Lu Shan as her son and had him dressed up in nappies in front of the Emperor.

    So again, what did GGK contribute?

    I completely accept that it takes just as much, if not more imagination to bring characters to life in historical fiction, so it is certainly not an “easier” genre. So, I don’t understand why he doesn’t just write historical fiction.

  28. Sunita
    May 23, 2013 @ 12:29:34

    @Danielle: Thanks for the information on Song of Arbonne, it’s been a while since I read it and it’s not my field of research.

    I found an interesting recent interview with Kay, in which he talks a bit about this issue:

    His books have been labelled historical fantasy, a term Kay has never particularly liked. But it’s true that his books, while largely based on real people and places, take what one critic called a “quarter-turn to the fantastic.” Past novels have been inspired by Medieval Spain, Renaissance Italy, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings and Byzantium, although all appeared under different names.

    Having been questioned about this dynamic before, Kay has clearly given it a lot of thought. In fact, he has written essay and given speeches on the topic of why he uses fictionalized settings that are nevertheless clearly and directly based on historical periods.

    “The sound bite answer is that as a writer, and I’m not attacking writers who think differently, I have some ethical issues myself with offering readers the illusion that I can give them the inner life of Henry VII or Justian the Emperor, or Alfred the Great or Li Qingzhao the female poet,” he says. “I don’t want to be giving that illusion that I can offer you the inner life of a real person. I find that ethically problematic.”

    It’s interesting he doesn’t like the term historical fantasy, perhaps because it does muddy the issue for a lot of readers.

  29. Danielle
    May 23, 2013 @ 13:27:43

    @Sunita: Thank you for the link!

    I have a conflicted relationship with historical fiction and am sympathetic to the author ‘s qualms about representing the inner lives of actual historical figures. On the other hand, that is only one approach to telling historical fiction. Another is, for example, to insert imaginary characters into a historical setting and have them, if it serves the story purpose, interact with real personages in situations/events/circumstances that accord with known or recorded history. Guy Gavriel Kay’s “quarter-turn” from actual history seems a questionable practice to me partly because he appears to routinely take actual events, places, people, institutions, cultural customs and relabel them according to his fancy, stir them around just a little and present them to readers as something shiny and new.

    It may not be “dishonest” in the most basic sense of (his)stories being (his)stories but do his books contain an introduction or afterword that discuss the background he is borrowing from? Time and again I hear of readers being surprised that what they have been reading is far from straight-up fantasy.

  30. Sunita
    May 23, 2013 @ 13:50:34

    @Danielle: I don’t have the other books in front of me, but River of Stars has a comprehensive Author’s Note at the end, which begins by noting the use of the historical era and characters and then details the scholars he consulted and the books he used. It’s several pages long.

    I also have a conflicted relationship with historical fiction, which I imagine is difficult to avoid if you engage in much historical research and/or writing! I don’t see this as more problematic than inserting made-up characters, perhaps because the made-up characters are so often more “modern” than the characters with whom they interact, so that the end result can be jarring for me, especially when I’m familiar with the “real” characters.

    That said, it’s all in the hands of the author, and if s/he can’t make it work for you or me as a reader, then that’s what matters.

    Great conversation, thanks! I’m really enjoying this.

  31. Jerri Kindig
    May 23, 2013 @ 16:33:29

    I have been looking for a more edgy type of romance, like a thriller as I am reading one now, but this book looks terrific. I am in Jonelle Patrick’s Fallen Angel at the moment and it has been one of my favorite reads lately. jonellepatrick.com I recommend talking a look. I love Tigana so I have no doubt I will love this one too!

  32. Danielle
    May 23, 2013 @ 16:34:51

    @Sunita: Thank you, Sunita – I feel so privileged to have access to conversations like these through a site like DA.

    One last thought. To steal a phrase from historian Suzannah Lipscomb (who, I must stress, uses it differently in this talk, Is The Past A Foreign Country), most fiction about the past, a concept which of course in itself is a kind of fiction, is already “more Narnia than France”. Now I am wondering if GGK’s form of adaptation of history exacerbates what Lipscomb calls popular culture’s “cosy” representation of the past or if it truly, as he appears to hope, sidesteps the most egregious pitfalls. My first impulse is that he may have chosen the technically easier path, but not necessarily the fairer one.

  33. Sirius
    May 23, 2013 @ 18:21:00

    @Danielle: I agree that this is a fascinating conversation. I am not responding to your comment specifically but more like adding my perspective as to why I call Kay’s novels historical fantasies rather than historical fiction. I always knew that his stories are heavily based on real events, real historical persons being in there together with some fictionalized characters. Like I do not know the details of the period which Song of Arbonne was based on, but I was aware that female ruler there was pretty much Eleanor of Acquitane so I guessed that the setting is pretty much based on real events, same as Tigana, same as Lions, same as Sarantine.

    However, while since Fionavar he used less and less magic in his stories, in quite a few of them it is still there – there is magic in Tiganna, there is less of it in Arbonne, but don’t priestesses there do some interesting stuff too? I do not think there is any magic in Sarantine, but I still by the force of habit classify his stories as fantasies because there is some magic in there, even if it is only a tiny bit.

    Had there been no magic there, for me it would have been a historical fiction, not fantasy. I never called his books fantasies because I thought he came up with alternate history, changed a lot in the real setting, etc.

  34. Danielle
    May 23, 2013 @ 20:59:18

    @Sirius: You make a good point about the magic, one I did not stop to consider. For the first time since the book hit the wall I find myself wishing I could locate my old copy of Song Of Arbonne in order to refresh my memory and see what new perspectives might come out of a re-reading. Without it I obviously cannot comment on the flavour and use of magic in the book but I would love to check whether it did not at least in part rely on a mix of the mythical elements of courtly love, the troubadour traditions, the religious and political tensions between Languedoc and the north including Catharism, the ever-present Roman legacy, and a general mediaeval view of the world, both the seen and unseen, that naturally encompassed beliefs which today would be classified as magic and superstition.

    Regarding Eleanor of Aquitaine: she is the most recognisable name from that place and period today but she was far from the only twelfth-century person or even noblewoman who wielded extensive power in the areas that today make up southern France. (Historical fiction about Eleanor sometimes makes it appear as if Eleanor and King Louis were the only rulers who mattered in “France”, which is inaccurate.) Narbonne, for example, was held and ruled by Eleanor’s then equally famous contemporary, viscountess Ermengard of Narbonne; and she, too, figured in the works of troubadours.

  35. Jessica2
    May 24, 2013 @ 11:10:12

    I have heard people criticize GGK before, for using real historical eras. To me, his works are historical fiction with the names changed and with some fantastical elements.

    In Under Heaven, there were some magical elements. But I assumed that most/all of the plot were real events. I most enjoyed it for the atmosphere. His use of language in Under Heaven was different than his previous books and I thought itevoked the period accurately and immersively. That’s where I see his creative spark. That, and his genius for characterization.

    I haven’t read River of Stars yet, since I haven’t had enough free time lately. But I will.

  36. Janine
    May 24, 2013 @ 14:12:58

    As a writer, I have found this conversation fascinating. I don’t honestly know if there is an entirely ethical way to represent real historical personages in fiction. Likely there is not even a 100% ethical way to write any kind of fiction, regardless of setting. Some ways are more responsible than others, but problematic elements will always creep in, whether we are representing history, technology, mythology or our own era.

    Certainly, when I sit down to write, I become aware that I am entering a moral gray area. To plunge into it is to be selfish, to embrace the impulse to create something which will surely be flawed. And yet it is a selfishness from which others benefit. How much poorer we would all be if no one attempted to represent anything, because any representation is either not accurate enough or not imaginative enough.

    These are important conversations to have. As readers and even more so as writers, we need to be thoughtful about these choices. We can always do a little bit better, even if we can never do anything complete justice.

  37. Sunita
    May 24, 2013 @ 18:12:46

    @Danielle: I hope she credited L. P. Hartley for that title in the talk. ;) My sense of GGK, which is only from a few interviews, is that he absolutely agrees with Hartley, i.e., they do things differently there. Indeed, I got the impression that he dislikes the tendency to read the present into the past and that he is interested in the differences as much as, if not more than, the similarities. But the medieval periods are absolutely not my area of expertise, so I can’t say how well he succeeds.

    You and Q have made some compelling points for why a reader can be uncomfortable with his approach. Part of where I am coming from is that the historical era is so often used as backdrop or as a relatively crude lens through which to consider contemporary issues, that reading something that seemed to care about exploring the past *as* the past was a huge relief.

  38. Guy Gavriel Kay – River of Stars | Fyrefly's Book Blog
    Jun 05, 2013 @ 07:34:06

    [...] Reviews: Book Harbinger, Dear Author, Fantasy Book Critic, Jules’ Book Reviews, and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine. Have you [...]

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