Guy Gavriel Kay has some problems with historical fiction, the genre people don’t necessarily put him in so much as place him unquestioningly alongside.
“I don’t like it when you’re reading a novel set in some far past and you look at the characters and think ‘Oh, that’s us,’” he tells me, “when you just have moderns dressed up in period clothing.”
No one familiar with Kay’s work, which usually revolves around elements of the fantastic injected into a historical analog (settings are reminiscent of Moorish Spain, Medieval France, and Song-dynasty China), could accuse his characters of modern hang-ups. The lack of detachment between the people of his novels and the fantastic events that sweep them away imbues a kind of strange authenticity to encounters with fox women and ghosts. There’s never any doubt–or tinge of modern reticence–in his characters’ frank appreciation of larger powers. And by having his characters grapple with a world they don’t understand but still accept, Kay writes his way out of another pitfall common to his half-adopted genre: the idea that we know better.
“There’s something else wrong with a lot of historical fiction: the smugness,” Kay says. “Modern people look at each other and say, ‘Can you believe that in sixth-century Byzantium people thought if you wrote a curse on a hardened wax tablet and threw it into a grave, it’d come true?’ I don’t want my readers to dismiss it as ‘quaint.’
“The world should be as the characters understand it to be.”
And it is–at least in the case of his recent release, River of Stars.
River of Stars follows the template Kay has perfected in recent years, charting the intersecting courses of characters plucked out of a suspiciously familiar alternate universe (in this case, Song-dynasty China) as they live through reflections of historical upheaval, which in this case means the invasion of a Mongol-like steppe people bent on bringing the empire of Kitai and its inhabitants to ruin. Resisting the horde is Ren Daiyan, a talented soldier and captain of men we are told from very early on will become a figure of legend, and Lin Shan, the unusually well-educated daughter of a minor court official who has captivated the emperor with her skill in verse. Along with a cast of soldiers and civil servants, they cling to what remains of their already diminished empire as the advancing army threatens to sweep Kitai and centuries of tradition into the sea.
The hand of the supernatural adopts a very light touch in River of Stars; only a few events challenge the modern skeptic and–though the instances are undoubtedly significant–none affect the plot in any kind of transformative way. The use of unfamiliar and patently ridiculous magic to bear the brunt of storytelling is a hallmark of terrible fantasy but Kay, rather than hinge a key moment on whether the enchanted ruby activates or some other arcane plot device kicks in, drives the story forward with human drama. The novel’s treatment of the unknowable is actually somewhat similar to another fantasy series, one which happens to have premiered its third season of television just recently. Like George R.R. Martin with A Song of Ice and Fire, Kay keeps his elements of the fantastic in relative reserve, using them to preserve and enhance the mysterious nature of the supernatural instead of dragging it down into the quotidien.
But talking about what a good fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay is might, admittedly, be a bit disingenuous, since Kay (and many others) realize that the popularity of fantasy is breaking down hard notions of what fantasy “is.”
“Fantasy writers are being seen as more and more important by a younger generation,” Kay says, “blurring the lines between genres and what is considered ‘mainstream’ and ‘marginal.’”
And as the market for fantasy grows and more money and time are put towards actualizing its potential for serious drama (see: Game of Thrones) the field will continue to mature. But, as Kay elaborates, this popularity can mean devoting too much thought to demarcating the genre’s boundaries.
“We put too much energy into categorizing books,” he asserts. “I just want my novels to resonate years after they’ve been read. The category it belongs to simply doesn’t matter.”
I can’t say whether Kay has hit his mark–it will take a few years before anyone can be an accurate judge. But I can tell you this: River of Stars makes a strong case for modern fantasy.
Just don’t call it that.
Joe Marshall is a freelance writer and author of the book I Haven't Actually Written a Book: 100 Tips for Lying in Website Promos. The product of a good public education, he has trouble with the finer sort of encyclopedia.