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REVIEW:  River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

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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DUELING REVIEWS:  Untamed by Anna Cowan

DUELING REVIEWS: Untamed by Anna Cowan

Dear Ms.Cowan,

Your historical romance debut, Untamed, centers on Kit Sutherland, child of a fortune hunter and an earl’s daughter. Brought up in a shabby country manor, Kit lacks the manners of a well-born young lady.

UntamedBy contrast, Lydia, Kit’s younger sister, is poised, beautiful, and has made a successful entry into society thanks in large part to her marriage to the Earl of BenRuin. A marriage Lydia seems bent on throwing away. Lydia is rumored to be having an affair with the Duke of Darlington, a scandalous figure.

BenRuin has threatened to kill the Duke if this affair continues, and he is not the only one determined to put a stop to it. Kit too, has decided that if it’s the last thing she does, she will keep the Duke of Darlington away from her sister.

In the hopes of having a private word with the Duke, Kit attends Lady Marmotte’s ball. But when the Duke enters the room a crowd clusters around him. So before she approaches the Duke, Kit talks with a man she meets by the sidelines, a beautiful man dressed in black.

Their conversation is brief, but unsettling and memorable. And when the topic shifts to the Duke of Darlington, and neither the man in black nor Kit hide their contempt for him. Later, as she wanders the house, Kit observes the man in black playing the piano, and then seducing the hostess, Lady Marmotte. The sex is cold and clinical on his part, but his partner does not notice.

Kit is inexplicably devastated by the sight, and almost as upset to later learn that the man in black is in fact the Duke. One of his coterie of dandies, Crispin, passed for the Duke, while the Duke seduced Lady Marmotte under her husband’s nose.

The Duke’s purpose in doing so isn’t clear, but he has an elaborate scheme in the works, and seducing Lady Marmotte, and perhaps even seducing Kit’s sister Lydia, is part of it.

When Kit and the Duke meet again, at the park, it’s to state their demands. Kit’s is that the Duke leave her sister alone. She will offer him anything in return. But what the Duke asks of her takes her breath away: He wants her to return to the country, and to bring him there with her.

Despite a warning from BenRuin that if the Duke has approached Kit, it’s to get at BenRuin, his enemy, Kit gives in to the Duke’s demand. On the pretext of returning home to care for her mother, she leaves London. And when the Duke’s carriage comes to take her away, the duke is waiting within. But to her surprise, he is dressed as a woman.

Thus begins the Duke’s masquerade as Lady Rose, a “cousin” of his. In this disguise, he infiltrates Kit’s meager country home, where he learns that Kit’s mother is a frail recluse, that Kit’s brother is a vulnerable intellectual, and that Kit works alongside the one servant to provide for them.

If Kit, her family, and her home aren’t what the Duke imagined, than the Duke is not what Kit imagined either. As she guessed, he is scheming and destructive to others as well as to himself, but he too has weaknesses. When “Lady Rose” claims to be afraid of the dark and asks to sleep with Kit, Kit thinks the Duke has only ruining her in mind, as a chess move in his game with BenRuin. But that turns out not to be the case.

With the privacy sharing a room affords them, Kit and Jude (the Duke) peel away each other’s masks and grow closer, despite Kit’s reservations. In the guise of Lady Rose, the Duke charms Kit’s mother and brother, too. But what is the Duke’s plan for Kit? And what will happen when his true identity comes to light?

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it truly is something different, and deserves credit for taking a great many risks. On the other, significant aspects of it did not work for me, even as I was very impressed by some strengths.

One of the most interesting aspects of Untamed is the way it turns prescribed gender roles on their head. First, we have the cross-dressing duke. Then we have Kit, the figurative wearer of pants in her household. Not only is he more elegant and fond of dresses than she, but she is in many ways stronger.

The flipping of gender roles goes beyond possessing positive attributes traditionally associated with the opposite sex. Kit and Jude (even the names are androgynous) also possess some negative qualities traditionally associated with the other gender.

For her part, Kit is not only strong and courageous enough to bear the load her brother would normally be expected to shoulder, she is also rough-mannered, brusque, and even coarse at times.

Jude, meanwhile, is not only elegant, refined, and far more beautifully dressed, whether in male garb or female, he is also fastidious, persnickety, and deeply fearful.

In a genre where much of the time, attention and focus are on making heroes alpha, alpha and more alpha, it’s refreshing to see these kinds of risks being taken.

The relationship Kit and Jude develop is one where it’s unclear who, in terms of the balance of power, is on top, and who is on the bottom. At first it seems Jude is going to have the upper hand – after all, he forces Kit to accept his presence in her home and even her bed. But when Jude’s reasons for doing so become evident, the power shifts toward Kit.

Family relationships are also important in this book. Both Kit and Jude are children of abusive fathers, and bear scars from childhood. Kit’s siblings and her mother, and the relationships within their family, are equally affected by the trauma of abuse.

The way the setting of the family manor is used fascinated me. The book reminded me very much of a theatrical play, partly because there were few location changes. So much of the story is set in the manor, and the manor seems almost sealed off from the outside world.

It’s like its own little world where it becomes possible to accept the off-kilter reality of this family, a reality where a duke wears ladies’ dresses, a pig wears gentlemen’s clothes, and the Sutherland family wears away as they pretend their pain and dysfunction doesn’t exist.

But there are problems with this book, too. So much of the book is improbable or impenetrable. For example, I still don’t understand why the Duke’s scheme came into being. Even once his reason is revealed, it is never clarified what made that cause personal; why it mattered to him passionately enough that he put himself at such risk for it.

I still don’t understand, too, why the Duke’s father added windowless rooms to every house in his estate in order to lock up little Jude inside them and deprive him of light. Yeah, reasons are given, but no sane person would do such a thing even so.

And I don’t understand, still, how Crispin passes for the Duke at Lady Marmotte’s ball in the eyes of the ton. I don’t honestly understand how Kit’s rough manners came to be, despite the explanation.

Many of these things, when I step away from the reading experience to think about them, begin to seem like conceits. But somehow, the claustrophobia of the setting makes it possible to go along with them.

Sometimes though, conceits are stretced so far that suspending disbelief becomes impossible. For example, I could buy Lydia and Kit both being attracted to the Duke, but when a third member of their family admits to feeling similarly, I felt the Duke was slipping into Marty Stu territory.

I noticed some glaring anachronisms, too. There is no explanation, despite the Regency setting, for why a woman who being publicly divorced would wield tremendous social clout nonetheless. There is no explanation for why a gay couple can show affection to each other in front of others without fear at a time when men were hanged for being homosexual.

The language is thought-provoking and often beautiful, but it too contains anachronistic words and expressions like “git,” “hungover,” and “infinite space had nothing on his eyes.”

While the characters remained in the manor, I found it easier to ignore these issues. The family dysfunction created its own logic, as family dysfunction frequently does. Absorbed by the imagery and the metaphors, by the characters’ interesting ruminations, I was able to view the book as a kind of experiment, almost a work of avant-garde art.

But when the characters returned to London and the conflicts started wrapping up, the seams became more and more evident. A ballroom scene near the end of the book, in which Kit confronts an antagonist, was impossible for me to buy. And I can’t even say that I’m persuaded that Jude can cease his self-destructive ways enough that his companionship will enhance Kit’s life.

Perhaps these are pedestrian concerns. The book’s ambition and innovation makes them seem so, at times. I’m reminded of not entirely accessible but nonetheless admirable art house movies. Rarely have I been so torn about how to assess a book. It is not even a matter of my head going against my heart: my head and my heart are both in two places.

I’ve been wrestling with what to grade this book during the writing of this review, and my failure to come to a firm conclusion has brought me to a split grade. As a daring experiment that shows strong prose and impressive willingness to test the boundaries of convention, Untamed rates at least a B. But as a cohesive, clear, and cogent whole, I can’t really give it more than a C-.




Dear Ms. Cowan:

Before I began this book, I read a scathingly negative review by another reviewer. Here at Dear Author, Janine and I have different opinions about Untamed. The novel is a book many will either love or hate.

Untamed by Anna CowanI loved it. It’s one of the most mesmerizing books I’ve read this year. It’s not perfect and yet I won’t be surprised if, come January, it’s on many a list as 2013′s best debut.

The book begins with the hero, the Duke of Darlington, sipping coffee and perusing silk handkerchiefs in the box window at Whites. In barrels a mammoth of a man, the Earl of BenRuin, seething with rage. BenRuin’s wife, Lydia, is one of Darlington’s lovers. BenRuin is stopped from slitting Darlington’s throat–he breaks a chair instead–and he leaves after telling Darlington that if he touches Lydia again, BenRuin will indeed kill him.

Lydia is at home, taking tea with her sister Kit who has recently come to London to have a belated (she’s 28) season.

‘I do wish you would leave the servants alone,’ said Lydia, Countess of BenRuin, graciously accepting a cup of tea from the footman. She and Kit sat in the upstairs parlour, squares of sunlight fat and warm on the carpet. ‘It makes them so uncomfortable.’

And your house and your friends and this fine dress make me uncomfortable. ‘Yes, my lady.’

Lydia, of the white-blonde hair and perfect figure, looked at Kit like she was a rat who had crept in and sat down for tea. Not scared of rats, Lydia, just deeply disdainful. ‘You only need to call me that in public,’ she said. ‘Lydia will do in private. I grow tired of telling you.’

‘Of course. Lydia.’

‘I suppose “sister” would be too much to manage.’

Kit resisted the urge to throw her hands up at her – a dreadful, base gesture. ‘We’ve not had cause to call each other sister these thirteen years, but the habit could be learned, if you wish it.’

Something interrupted Lydia’s smooth expression, then was gone. ‘Just a passing fancy,’ she said, her vowels as round as a line of marbles. Bored marbles. ‘Is the tea not to your taste? Fetch a new pot,’ she said to the footman. ‘And be sure it is hot when it arrives.’

You wouldn’t know by listening to them, Kit thought, that she was older than Lydia by seven years. The instant you laid eyes on them you’d not be confused, though. The fresh, fair-skinned Countess and her dark hobgoblin sister. Although perhaps she was too tall and strong for a hobgoblin. Perhaps the child of a hobgoblin and a tree.

BenRuin, a man deeply in love with a wife who seems not to care a whit for him, storms into the parlor.

The Earl fell to his knees before her sister, and though standing he was too large, too much for Kit, seeing him brought so low was awful.

‘I almost killed a man today,’ he said, his hands reaching for Lydia and finding no place they would be welcome. ‘I swear to you, I would have put my knife in his throat. Do not drive me further than this.’

Kit looked at her rough hands. Here was the part that was not so easy. She had given everything so that Lydia could marry well.

Lord BenRuin stood, as though he could no longer bear to be near his wife. ‘Do not see him again,’ he said. ‘I beg of you, do not see him again.’

That night, Kit goes to a ball and, as she always does in these social situations, slouches against a wall and thinks about her life at home, a place where she works hard–her family, the Sutherlands, are one step away from impoverished–but can be her true self. As she thinks about the pigs that need to be slaughtered, she listens to the way the ton talks about her sister and realizes Lydia’s affair with Darlington, the most scandalous man in town, is destroying Lydia’s reputation. Kit decides to make her business to end her sister’s liaison. When Darlington arrives at the ball, Kit sees him but before she can seek him out, the most beautiful man she’s ever seen strikes up a conversation with her. Their interchange is charged with the promise of emotional intimacy and, after he walks away from her, Kit feels that “something in her has been touched.” She goes and warns off Darlington who cheerfully tells her he and Lydia have “parted ways.” Darlington seems nothing like his reputation and Kit is bemused.

She wanders away from the social crush and follows the sound of a piano being played. As she stands on the edge of the room, she sees it’s the man she spoke with playing. Before she can speak to him, the hostess of the ball, the very married Lady Marmotte strolls in. As Kit watches the man, who Kit realizes is Darlington, begins to make love to Lady Marmotte. Kit is horrified to see the look on the Duke’s face.

…he was not engaged at all. He did not feel passion. His expression was calculated. His smiles, his voice, were deliberate. He used his body with as much dispassionate skill as the carpenter at Millcross used his lathe. He pushed her further back still, and then he leaned forward and licked her breasts, first one then the other. Methodical, contained.

The next day, Kit encounters Darlington while she is out with Lydia in the park. She asks him to leave Lydia alone. He agrees with the condition that Kit leave London, return home, and take him with her. She agrees despite being warned by BenRuin that if Darlington lays a finger on her, he’ll destroy the man. When the Duke’s carriage arrives to take Kit and Darlington back to the Manor (Kit’s name for her home), Darlington again shocks Kit.

…she was the most magnificent woman Kit had ever seen. She wore the rigid dress of the previous generation, but instead of looking outdated she made you long for the gorgeous, riotous colours of another age. Yellow poppies burst across the wine-red silk that bound her torso, chest and shoulders. They trailed down the skirts that waterfalled under their modest table. She was tightly corseted, her trim figure accentuated by the flare of small hoops beneath her skirts. She looked out the window, offering Kit her profile – the fine, straight nose, the smiling, expressive lips and heavy eyes. She wore a black wig, one thick coil falling over her shoulder on to the white linen tucked around her neck.

The woman turned away from the window and the Duke’s difficult blue eyes laughed out of her face.

What happens from here is complicated, routinely unexpected, and, depending on your perspective, either miraculous or mendacious. The Duke, whose name is Jude, settles into life at the Manor with Kit, her hazy mother, her beta brother, and their one servant Liza. Jude manipulates everyone–only Kit knows he’s a man–into living the lives he sees for them. In the time that the Duke takes over the Manor everyone changes, everything changes. Jude controls everyone but Kit. And it is that relationship with its every shifting power structure that makes this novel so extraordinary.

Let me say I don’t give a damn about this book’s sexual politics. Or rather I don’t give a damn about whether Untamed does justice to non-heteronormative lifestyles. It’s not that I don’t care about the cultural conundrums we ineptly struggle with as we try to define what it means to be a man, a woman, a person in 2013. But when I was reading this book, I was transported. It simply didn’t occur to me to analyze and parse. I just wanted to read.

The majority of this book details the time Jude and Kit spend living together at the Manor. Jude is a volatile chimera, shifting from entrancing to almost evil. Kit is, like so many of my favorite women in fiction, often unlikable. Their relationship is in every aspect–emotional, sexual, and social–constantly mutating. As I turned the pages, steadfastly ignoring the responsibilities of my life, I was, over and over again, surprised but never discomfited by their behavior. Together they are fascinating, sensual, and, in the way that great story-telling often is, fabulously unlikely.

The final chapters of Untamed don’t match the brilliance of the rest of the book. When Kit and Jude return to London–Jude is facing social and financial destruction, all of which has been engineered by a very pissed-off Lady Marmotte–the story falters. Kit and Jude become unlikely in ways that don’t work. The society they best is one that even I, who rarely cares about historical accuracy, found jarringly dubious. Had it not been for the deft and moving portrayal of Lydia’s and BenRuin’s relationship, I’d have felt bereft as I finished the novel.

Untamed is flawed. When, days later, I awoke from its spell, I became aware of its missteps. The novel is rather like an improved Icarus, that fabled dreamer whom Kit invokes near the end of the book’s, a literary “lunatic glory.”

Untamed falls short of its ambitions. But even as I contemplate its failings, I’m ready to read it again. It gets B+ from me.



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