If you’re a fan of massively thick, sprawling worldbuildling, rich with history fantasies like I am, you are going to love River of Stars. However, it might take a while to get into. On page one, I doubted I would finished the book. My first thought was if the writer really didn’t know a single grammatical rule and the editor really never stepped in and fixed things, I sure wasn’t going to take the time to read it. Then I realized I was an idiot, and Mr. Kay was one of the best writers I’ve stumbled on. He knows his grammar. He just knows it well enough to break all the rules and invent a complete new dialect that he wrote an entire 632 page novel in. This isn’t an author throwing in a few odd words and sentence structures every so often to try and make it sound ethnic. The entire book, including the narration follows a very precise, structure with rules of its own. I kept notes. What he’s done here is mind blowing.
Less magical than a book like Name of the Wind, the echoes of Ancient Chinese culture make it much more similar to Across the Nightingale Floor. But the depth of research into oriental culture is what brings this book alive. Poetry and calligraphy are as important to the story as swords and bows. The constant political struggle for a better position and the intrigues and plots that follow are what actually bring the two main characters together, something their ranks probably would never have allowed otherwise. The rich detail and craft that went into the setting is what makes this world come alive even more than the characters.
That’s not to say the characters are lacking though. The plot of the book turns on two of its large cast of characters. Ren Daiyan was once a village boy who dreamed of being of soldier even though it was frowned on. Now he is the leader of a group of bandits trying desperately to escape the clutches of a destiny he does not choose. Lin Shan is overly educated and opinionated for a woman, and she is actively forging her own life regardless of destiny. Together they serve as the focus point of this sweeping story, and they both do an excellent job of captivating the reader. Often when a story splits between characters, I will find myself more interested in one story and only skim parts by other characters’ perspectives. Each time a section with Daiyan ended, I wanted to page forward to find where it picked up. However, just a few sentences on the next page would suck me right into Shan’s plot line which I would be loath the leave until I remembered where I’d left Daiyan. And so on throughout the book.
My only caveat in recommended A River of Stars is that it seems to be the second book in a series. As there was nothing to indicate that it was part of a sequence, I assumed it was a standalone novel. I enjoyed it so much I googled the author to find a list of his other books and found out that there does seem to be a preceding book. I didn’t get the impression that the two stories are heavily connected, but it’s possible that I might have enjoyed A River of Stars even more if I’d started with Under Heaven.