I’m ever so glad to see that Guy Gavriel Kay (GGK) is back on track! Before reading Ysabel I truly believed he could do no wrong. Even his less-good books were still good, and his good books were amazing, but Ysabel made me fear he’d lost his mojo, especially because it followed The Last Light of the Sun, which was in the “less-good” category. It was with a sigh of relive that I finished Under Heaven and could confidently still say he’s one of my favorite fantasy authors.
One of the best things about his books is that each is set in a place very similar to our own world: Tigana could be medieval Italy, The Lions of Al-Rassan Moorish Spain, The Sarantine Mosaic Constantinople, etc. In Under Heaven, the country of Kitai was inspired by China’s 8th century Tang Dynasty and the events leading to the An Shi Rebellion.
For the first time GGK moves outside “Europe” and away from the world of all his earlier novels. In Under Heaven there’s only one moon (instead of the usually two), and there’s no reference to the mythical Fionavar, a legend common to all his previous societies and where The Fionavar Tapestry is actually set. I felt sorry for the break in tradition, but I’m also looking forward to see what he’ll do with his next books.
The story starts with Shen Tai, who’s honoring the death of his father, a great General of the Kitai Empire, by burying the dead of an old battle between Kitai and their arch-enemies, the Taguran. No one dares living in that place because the spirits of the dead roam in the night, so for his extraordinary courage, the Taguran Empress offers Shen Tai 250 prized Sardian horses.
This is such an amazing gift that Shen Tai’s life is immediately in danger. The gift forces him out his self-imposed exile to join the highest rank of Kitai’s society their complex political and dynastic power-struggles.
Kitai is an intricate society with strict rules that dominate every aspect of life and a lot of importance is given to pleasures such as music and poetry. For instance, young men who want to entre civil service have to go through several tough exams that involve history, law and philosophy, but they also have to write several styles of poetry. GGK published a poetry book in 2003, and you can tell that in Under Heaven he expanded on what’s clearly one of his passions.
I heart fictional maps…
Two things that make GGK’s books right up my alley: the characterization and his tangent ways of telling a story.
Under Heaven is filled with fascinating characters, like “The Banished Immortal”, the greatest poet of his age, who’s constantly drunk but never the less has great discussions with Shen Tai about everything. Although in Katai society women don’t have any official power, we see that many (most?) of the major events in the book are set in motion by women. From the Emperor’s Favorite Concubine to Shen Tai’s sister or his kick-ass body-guard, there’s enough female presence and variety to enrich a story that at first sight seems about a strictly-patriarchal society.
If you’ve read any of GGK’s books you’ll probably know what I mean about a tangent way to tell the story. Not only it’s not linear in time and place, but it also jumps between points of view and shifts between macro and micro events. For instance, he might be telling you about an impending major battle, the way the troops are moving and the Emperor’s intentions, and then shift to the thoughts of an obscure guard in an obscure fortress. A few pages are dedicated to this character, even though he’ll be of no importance to the story. You’ll find out about his hopes and fears, something about his past, and quickly you’ll become emotionally invested in him. Because of him you’ll realize the human impact of the battles recently described in only a strategic way.
Often, many chapters later (and probably by something a main character says in passing) you’ll find out that the guard died or was rewarded and, incredibly, it makes you strangely sad or happy. In Under Heaven, Shen Tai’s horse keeper is a good example of this, as is the head of the mountain fortress, or the beggar outside the closed garden. GGK is a master of this gimmick – I wonder if it has a name? May I propose “GGK 360o”?
I didn’t connect with Under Heaven as much as I did with some of his other books. The pace at certain points was too slow and the story of Shen Tai’s sister, given as a bride to the leader of a savage Mongol-like tribe, was more interesting than his own. I felt a bit frustrated whenever the story moved away from her. The same happened later on with Shen Tai’s former lover (her final chapters were actually my favorite of the whole book).
Although GGK does a great job with his characters, I have the feeling they weren’t the most important part of the book. They’re just instruments to illustrate the decline and fall of a dynasty that seemed immortal. There’s something very nostalgic about Under Heaven, like it’s an ode to a long-lost art form or beautiful language. This is something common to the best of his earlier books and it never fails to get a tear or twenty out of me.
Other thoughts: BookLust, Fantasy Book Critic, Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, Sci-Fi Fan Letter, Speculative Book Review, Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Rachel Cotterill’s Book Reviews, Val’s Random Comments, The Wertzone, Torque Control, The Speculative Scotsman, The King of Elfland’s Second Cousin, The Literary Omnivore, Between Two Books, Stella Matutina, My Ever Expanding Library, the word zombie (yours?)