Four men stepped out of the forest on the right side of the road. There was no obvious way in or out, they were just suddenly there, on the path ahead of them. Blocking it.
Three of them held drawn swords, Daiyan saw. One carried a staff, thick as a fist. They were roughly dressed in drawstring trousers and tunics, one was barefoot. Two were extremely big men. All looked capable of handling themselves in a fight - or anything else out there. They were absolutely silent.
The empire of Kitai is not what it once was. It is four centuries since the events described in Under Heaven, and the world has changed greatly. Xinan is no longer the capital, the Great Wall has crumbled, and the empire in its Twelfth Dynasty is smaller than it was before. Learning and living by the sword is no longer considered appropriate for civilised people; to join the army is a disgrace.
Ren Daiyan dreams of being a hero, a military commander, taking back the lost Fourteen Prefectures, land that once belonged to the Kitan empire. He is training, in more or less secret, with the bow he has gotten as a gift from his teacher. When the sub-prefect is short one bowman in his guard on his way to solve a murder, Daiyan is told to accompany him, and thus given a chance to show his worth.
When Lin Shan, daughter of Lin Kuo, loses her brother, her father decides to raise her as he would have raised a son. She learns to read, to ride, she writes poetry, she can even handle a bow. She is bolder than most women of the Twelfth Dynasty as well.
One of the things I like about Kay's books, is how he writes. He sometimes jumps ahead in time, often to give us a small view into the future of the person he is describing; often someone we will not meet again, someone who is not really important to the main story. This is part of what makes his stories great.
"He saw what took place by his barn. He talked about it afterwards indeed, he talked about it all his life, and the story spread, in the light of the other events that followed." is just such an example. A very minor character, one more small insignificant person in a bigger story, who would normally fade and be forgotten, like the barmain who served ale at an inn, or the merchant selling hot meat pies.
Kay picks out some of those, and with just a few sentences, making them more than they were. He does it several times in this book, sometimes he names them, sometimes not. He skips ahead, gives us a sense of the future, then returns to the present.
That said, River of Stars lacks something. It is a very good book, by all means, but to me, there was something missing, something that could be found in, for instance, Tigana, The Darkest Road and Under Heaven. Still, it is absolutely worth reading.
Like Under Heaven, this story is set in a land very much like ancient China. There is court intrigues, betrayal, poetry that, to my admittedly ignorant eye, seems right.
About Under Heaven
About the author Guy Gavriel Kay