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Originally published Friday, April 19, 2013 at 5:01 AM

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‘River of Stars’: A sweeping saga of a swordsman and a poetess

Guy Gavriel Kay’s “River of Stars” is a fantasy set in a country much like that of China during the Song dynasty, where a fearless young man and a brilliant young woman confront their destinies. Kay appears Friday, April 19, at the University Book Store in conversation with Nancy P

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Guy Gavriel Kay

The author of “River of Stars” will discuss his book in conversation with Nancy Pearl at 7 p.m. Friday, April 19, at Seattle’s University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E.; free (206-634-3400 or

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Why would a white man want to write an epic fantasy based on Chinese history? Why would he do so twice?

In the case of award-winning Toronto author Guy Gavriel Kay, the answer could be, “Because he can.” “River of Stars,” (Roc, 576 pp., $26.95), the follow-up to Kay’s acclaimed “Under Heaven,” takes place in Kitai, a land closely modeled on China. Set during a period mirroring the centuries-long Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE, as “Under Heaven” mirrored the Tang Dynasty of 618-907 CE), “River of Stars” tells the intertwining stories of a swordsman and a poetess. Not the most iconoclastic pairing for this milieu, but Ren Daiyan and Lin Shan are fully realized characters rather than the shadows those labels suggest.

Beginning with Ren’s sudden understanding that the bandits he confronts as a boy may hold the key to his future — that he needs to live in their midst rather than fight against them — the novel takes several surprising turns. Yet though the plot is blessedly unpredictable, its hero is no inscrutable warrior type: Ren is motivated by understandable emotions born of a culture well described. Brilliant, stubborn, loyal, daring, he does what he must. But his tasks are often determined by chance and other elements beyond his control, elements he as a character and we as readers recognize only in hindsight.

Lin Shan is a woman brought up by her idealistic father to break the far-too-­restrictive mold defining her sex. Through his characters’ unobtrusive reflections, Kay carefully differentiates the ways changing eras affect the roles of upper-class women. Whether she and her father travel to take part in a far city’s celebrated peony festival or to visit a country gentleman, the mores of the Song Dynasty dictate that Lin must stay in their destination’s women’s quarters; she must dress so as not to incite lust, must remain virgin till her wedding night and so on. Her literacy, while not forbidden, is viewed as eccentric.

Lin is aware of the costs of her exceptional status even as she enjoys its rewards, and she loves her antique-collecting husband even as she glories in Ren’s illicit embrace. Caught in powerful political currents, Ren and Lin witness a barbarian invasion that not even his superior military tactics can defeat, sweeping changes her poems can only lament.

“River of Stars” is a long novel (more than 500 pages) telling a large story. In addition to Ren and Lin, there are believable depictions of barbarian horsemen, court officials (honest, corrupt, loyal, ambitious or all of the above), soldiers, thieves and ghosts. Fantastic elements such as these last, or the fox spirit whose advances Ren rejects, are few. So one must ask not only why Kay wrote an epic based on another’s culture but why this epic is a fantasy set in Kitai instead of a historical novel set in China.

Again, the answer concerns the author’s abilities. Freed from the constraints of actual events, “River of Stars” allows him to write about complex, involving human beings rather than the larger-than-life legendary figures they become in time. At this delicate and demanding art, Kay excels.

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