There was a time, I’d say from the early 90s until six or seven years ago, that Guy Gavriel Kay might have been my favorite writer. He was definitely...moreThere was a time, I’d say from the early 90s until six or seven years ago, that Guy Gavriel Kay might have been my favorite writer. He was definitely my favorite fantasy writer- and to call him a fantasy writer is probably misleading, the fantasy elements in his books are often small and subtle-he is more a Historical Fiction writer than anything. He and I have grown apart, though. Mostly because my tastes have changed, I suspect, but also due to his last several books just not being up to his previous high standards. Under Heaven is a partial return to form, but only partial. A thrilling read, with some wonderful grace notes but also some odd choices in pacing and some set pieces that seemed more than just echoes of scenes from earlier Kay books.
Most of Kay’s books take place in recognizable historical periods with slight twists of fantasy added, and a re-naming of places and reconfiguring of events so you are left with the flavor and atmosphere of that time and place but Kay is set free to let his imagination take over, unencumbered by strict facts. He has done takes on Provencal in the age of the Troubadors(my favorite- A Song for Arbonne, Medieval Spain, England under siege by Vikings, Byzantium at its apex and with Under Heaven he presents us with a subtly, artfully altered Tang Era China.
Good Reader Kelly has a wonderful review of Under Heaven(it’s also a wonderful thread where many smart and worthy readers discuss the relative merits of Kay’s books- here is the link: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/...). One thing she mentions in the review(and I’m paraphrasing like hell here, I haven’t read it in awhile) is that we are much more likely to love a work of Historical Fiction if the time and place call to us, resonate with us, and that is absolutely true. My all-time favorite Kay books are set in the places I have the most affinity for, places that have charged my imagination.
There was a time that a Tang Era China reworked by Kay would have left me indifferent. The last few years however I have been absolutely devouring Tang Era poetry and trying to also bone up on the history to the extent my addled brain can. Two of the poets from that era, Tu Fu and Li Po have become all-time favorites of mine, I read from them nearly every week. Imagine my joy when Kay not only referenced these poets but made Li Po a major character, the ‘banished immortal’ himself striding across the stage, albeit re-imagined as sword master, ready to kick ass when he isn’t reciting poetry or chasing ladies. How cool is that?
The main arc of the story in Under Heaven follows Shen Tai, whose father, a prominent general, has recently died. As a grieving rite Shen Tai has spent the last year burying the dead at the site of a major battle. The ghosts that haunt this place are depicted in chilling, uncanny fashion. Kay has always been good at capturing just how scary and unnerving the unknown(death, the gods, women(heh)) are how much mojo a good man needs to stand up straight in the face of the numinous. As a result of his bravery Shen Tai is given a gift that beggars description and is made a player and a target in a kingdom hurtling towards civil war.
In Shen, Kay has created a subtle, likeable protagonist. The secondary characters are all great. There are wonderful set pieces of action that are as cool as anything in ‘Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger’ or ‘House of Flying Daggers’. There is courtly intrigue and long, literate speeches that show Kay’s constant stance as defender of culture and beauty and the fine things in this life. There is a wonderful, eerie evocation of shamanistic practices that counter this too.
The Women are here too. Kay is better at writing women of power better than most male fantasy writers I can think of, even if in this book there power is often hidden behind the veil of courtesan or whore- you still know that they are the equal and often the better of the men in their lives. He is also a constant celebrator of the larger feminine principle, of the great SHE at the heart of the world. Over and over in Kay’s works there is the sense of huge cosmic encounters with the archetypical feminine, of the GODDESS herself, when some male interacts with the women in his life. A rite, a dangerous mystery, a crossing of the threshold into something deeper and more beautiful. And he is a romantic too. While he writes about the joining of the sexes with maturity and a discerning eye, he also tends towards a poetic lushness in the language that can sound a bit like a bodice-ripper.
Quibbles: The ending is rushed rushed rushed. He shoehorns years of action into twenty pages. While it’s all good I would’ve preferred more time with these characters, another book even. Most of the fates of the characters seemed cool and fair including one joining I had hoped for hundreds of pages earlier. There also scenes and arrangements of characters that too strongly recall Kay’s earlier works. On the one hand it’s mostly always good, on the other you get a little concerned he’s repeating his own chord patterns. He is still a master though, even though this is not his best, and there are more than enough moments of sheer delight to makeUnder Heaven worth the read.
Note: Note the cover on my edition. Cool terra cotta horses. Note the cover on Good Reader Kelly’s edition. Goofy looking Asian warrior’s from a bad episode of Naruto or a Chinese Soap Opera, cheesier than a block of Velveeta. Is a bad cover worth a loss of a star? I think so.