River of Stars almost took a turn for the entirely expected.
When Ren confronts the new emperor, Wenzong's son Chizu, with the idea of going down fighting against the Altai that have them besieged he is flatly turned down. This moment gave me tremendous pause. Although there are only 140 or so pages left, I had expected Ren's plan to get the okay. I had thought that the book would have wrapped up in a somewhat uncluttered, direct sort of way.
Instead, Ren's idea is shot down. Of course, that doesn't stop him from working to do what he can to fulfil what he sees as his destiny. It does send him into a round of self-evaluation, though. A bit of introspection followed by his sneaking out to see the Kitan prince handed over to the Altai as a surety that the rest of their impossible price will be paid. Unsurprisingly, Ren's arc moves forward as a new avenue to his goal opens.
Shan, on the other hand, is a bit more static. She reveals that her and her husband's collection of artifacts hasn't been used to contribute to the Altai, and has some time with Ren. In spite of this, we don't see her character move forward or face new difficulties as Ren does.
Nonetheless, what I enjoy about this turn of events is that it forces the book away from a perfectly formed ending.
In the emperor's refusal of Ren's plan and the wrapping up of former prime minister Hang Dejin's arc in the next chapter, Kay really creates a sense of hopelessness. The shadow that he has made to fall over Kitai is palpable.
Though, the way that chapter XXII ends with the narrator sharing how the story of Hang Dejin's end is spread does put a few twinkling stars into that darkness. None of them look like the morning star, however.