River of Stars is a sweeping and sprawling epic set in ancient China, where bandits and politicians vie to shape the future of an empire. There, one man sets in motion a daring plan to reunite the fractured empire. A young woman finds herself defying time-honored traditions. The complex whirl of ploys and counter-ploys could be the empire’s salvation or damnation.
The writing is gorgeous and descriptive, with some beautifully flowery language, fascinating characters, and political intrigue. The story is inventive and never failed to keep my interest, but I am not entirely sold on the structure of the novel. Every chapter is broken into sections, and this is where the structure’s problems begin for me. Almost every section is told from a different point of view, with new characters (that often never appear again) introduced in most of them. While we do follow a few main characters, their stories are often told from the point of view of these new characters. As a result, most of these sections spend a few pages introducing a character and setting. I made it about halfway through before a focus character repeated. The problem here is not the structure, but the fact that the structure seemed to get in the way of the story.
I am sure that some reviewers will describe this as “Game of Thrones set in Chinese history,” but this book, as entertaining and grand as it is, lacks the general sociopathy and structure that Game of Thrones relies on. There is political intrigue aplenty and some of the characters are really appalling jerks, but I don’t get the feeling that any of these characters could *SPOILER DELETED*, *SPOILER DELETED*, or *SPOILER DELETED* with a *SPOILER DELETED*. There are even characters that are entirely moral. The point of this analogy is not that River of Stars should have been Game of Thrones, but some of the elements would have been a good fit.
Ultimately, this is a good novel with a few things that kept it from being great. I enjoyed it immensely and can recommend it to anyone looking for some good historical fiction or a political thriller with a unique setting. This is an enjoyable read, and it says something about my investment in the story that I wish it were not just a good novel, but a great one.
Three and a Half of the Emperor’s Favorite Nightingales out of Five