As today marks the start of the new Lunar Year (a Year of the Sheep), my thoughts have turned to something oriental. So I am recommending a Fantasy novel set in a version of Song Dynasty (960-1279) China. `River of Stars’ by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay was published in 2013. The story takes place around 400 years later than Kay’s previous China-inspired novel, `Under Heaven’. `River of Stars’ is available in ebook and audio editions but I think it’s best suited to being read in traditional book form. Am I the only person to find it depressing that European book covers rarely feature the leading characters if they aren’t white?

This multi-stranded epic features two fascinating leading characters – an intelligent young woman named Lin Shan and a brilliant soldier named Ren Daiyan. They both live in Kitai, a once glorious empire that is now in decline. The Twelfth Dynasty still rule in Hanjin but Emperor Wenzong is more interested in creating an extraordinary garden than in recovering the fourteen districts lost to the `barbarian’ tribes of the steppe. Shan is the only child of a gentle scholar who has educated her as if she was a boy and arranged for her to marry a man who will tolerate her unconventional ways. When her father is threatened with banishment, Shan appeals directly to the Emperor. He is intrigued by Shan’s talents and summons the family to court. There, in very unusual circumstances, she meets Daiyan and falls in love with him.

Daiyan was once an outlaw, supporting oppressed peasants against cruel and corrupt officials, but twists of fate have led to him becoming a member of the Imperial Guard. Daiyan has always dreamed of being a great general and after an encounter with a Fox Spirit he becomes convinced that it is his destiny to recover Kitai’s lost territory. Meanwhile, war has broken out on the steppe as the Altai tribe strives for dominance. Rival factions in Hanjin, and the Emperor’s neglect of political affairs, lead to some disastrous decisions being made. Kitai is brutally invaded and the capital itself is attacked by the Altai.  Shan and Daiyan are thrown together in these dangerous times and embark on a journey that will have momentous consequences for all Kitai. Daiyan becomes a leader out of legend but will the Empire demand too great a sacrifice from him?

Guy Gavriel Kay’s name on a book is always a guarantee of quality. In my view, he’s our best current writer of  Historical Fantasy. I suspect it’s because he undertakes the kind of in-depth research that an historical novel requires before using his imagination to transform the facts into a new fictional world. `River of Stars’ is loosely based on real people and events but Kay doesn’t follow the original history and chronology in a slavish way. He feels free to invent or simplify in the interests of a good story. The people in this story don’t bear historical names, allowing Kay to interpret their characters as he chooses without anyone being able to say that he is wrong. For the reader, the advantage is that it really doesn’t matter if you don’t know a thing about Song Dynasty China. Kay has lovingly recreated it for you as Twelfth Dynasty Kitai. As a bonus, the types of supernatural beings that people of this place and period would have believed in – such as ghosts and seductive Fox Spirits – also appear in the story.

My plot summary concentrates on Shan and Daiyan but `River of Stars’ is a complex novel told from many different points of view. Among these viewpoint characters are the wily prime minister of Kitai and his great rival, the ambitious deputy prime minister, an exiled poet and his diplomat brother, Shan’s homosexual husband, the ferocious war-leader of the Altai, a ritual-master who may or may not be a charlatan, and a military official who becomes Daiyan’s most loyal follower. From time to time an unnamed narrator nudges the reader into understanding how all of these people come to play a significant role in the fate of Kitai. Kay is a writer of great empathy who seems to have no difficulty getting inside the heads and hearts of his characters, whether they are heroes, villains or a bit of both. Nobody in the book is just a spear-carrier. Even when an a unfortunate soldier or sentry is doomed to die after one scene, Kay tends to give us the man’s whole back-story and innermost thoughts. Sometimes I would mutter, `Just die already’, because I was keen to get back to what was happening to Shan and Daiyan.

At a time when women were increasingly expected to stay at home being decorative and helpless, Shan is unusual in wanting a more challenging life, but she never seems like a modern feminist in historical dress. She expresses her individuality through calligraphy, music and writing song lyrics and her arranged marriage to dedicated antique-collector Qi Wai is a surprisingly successful one. Kay has written books based on a range of cultures but he seems particularly inspired by Chinese poetry and art. Clever pastiches of melancholy Chinese poems are used to great effect in this novel and the character of the principled poet Lu Chen seems to embody the soul of Kitai. Kay conveys both the cultural achievements of his Twelfth Dynasty and their terrible human cost. The Emperor’s garden is an exquisite work of art but thousands of people have been killed or injured dragging giant rocks to Hanjin in order to make it.  I shall never look at classic Chinese gardens in quite the same way again.

In `River of Stars’ all the plotting and intrigue at the hapless Emperor’s court is both entertaining and appalling. There is a memorable scene in which Emperor Wenzong only finds out about a catastrophic defeat for his forces when he asks one of his gardeners why he is crying. The many fights and battle scenes are brilliantly described and Daiyan is convincing as a formidable archer and ingenious military strategist. These parts of the novel reminded me of one my all time favourite films, John Woo’s epic `Red Cliff’ (2008-2009 – make sure you see the uncut two-part version). `River of Stars’ and `Red Cliff’ both have grandeur and nobility. They honour the courage of men fighting to save their homeland without glorifying carnage. Kay shows unexpected acts of heroism when people in desperate situations discover what really matters to them, such as Qi Wai deciding that the antiques which shed light on the history of his country are worth dying for.

One of the things that I admire about Kay is that he refuses to take part in what I would call the `brutalization’ of Fantasy. As readers get harder to shock, many modern Fantasy novels are packed with ever more extreme scenes of sex and violence. Terrible things do happen in `River of Stars’, such as a court official quietly deciding that he must poison his wife or a barbarian ruler suffering death by fire-ants, but Kay never dwells on the gory details more than is necessary to make his point. To me, the most shocking thing in this story is the political betrayal of Daiyan’s ideals. Kay has said that `the legend-building process’ is one of the major themes of this novel and Daiyan becomes a victim of his own legend. `River of Stars’ has all the action you could want from Heroic Fantasy but it’s also subtle and moving. The only thing this story lacks is sheep. So, if you’re keen to celebrate the Year of the Sheep, I suggest that you also go to the new Aardman film, `Shaun the Sheep’, and laugh yourself silly. Until next time…