This is essentially a mystery novel, and while the central mystery is what happened to the moon, Lin delivers up little mysteries along the way: Why did Rendi run away from home? Where did the innkeeper’s son run away to? Why can no one else hear the moon wailing? Why are Madame Chang and Mr. Shan so strange–and just who are they exactly? How do the stories figure into everything? The answers to all of these come tumbling in rapid succession toward the end of the novel, and Nina felt they did so less than artfully, but I didn’t have a problem here.
With Chinese folktales being an inspiration for this novel, it’s not surprising that the characters and prose style of the book approximates this form. I mentioned that the characters here present an interesting foil to those in SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS because while both have an ensemble cast of characters, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS has off-the-charts characterization with relatively little character development (following in the tradition of certain Victorian novels), whereas STARRY RIVER has relatively flat characterization (a problem we had with WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, but which we decided could be forgiven because of the obvious fairy tale influence). The character development is quite impressive. Rendi grows and changes the most, obviously, but some secondary characters grow in important ways, too, while others do not change as much as our perception of them changes once we know their backstory. The effect is that our perception of virtually each character in this ensemble cast has changed over the course of the novel.
The setting is nicely done, but more impresive, I think, because, in contrast to WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON which frequently changed setting because of its quest plot, STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY has a single setting. Sometimes I feel like the character development in a quest plot is superficial, that it’s more external than internal, but with a stationary setting you really can’t hide character development behind plot quite as easily.
The storytelling concept is once again impressive while the themes of peace and forgiveness are also developed throughout the novel. It’s hard to parse out individual literary elements in this book because I feel like they are all fused together so well. While none of them necessarily strike me as most distinguished in isolation, I think the total effect is very distinguished. Alluding to a previous decathlon metaphor, I ask if it’s possible that we might acknowledge that the plotting isn’t quite as distinguished as BOMB or the characters aren’t as distinguished as SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS and so on down through all the criteria–and yet it may end up winning the whole thing in a holistic kind of evaluation.