Justin's Reviews > Under Heaven

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
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Kay’s latest history/fantasy mashup takes the reader to a simulacrum of Tang Dynasty China, with all of the flowery, evocative prose that could be expected from such a journey. Under Heaven drew me in quick, and I finished it with the wistful satisfaction that is the hallmark of a good story. Somehow, though, I think I wanted just a little bit more out of this book.

The book begins on the haunted shore of a lake called Kuala Nor, in a mountain valley on the border between the nations of Kitai and Tagura. For two years, Shen Tai has toiled alone to bury the bones of dead soldiers from past battles in valley. Tai, an ex-soldier and former Kanlin Warrior-in-training (think Shaolin monk), chose this penance as mourning and tribute for his father, a renowned general with an uncharacteristic pacifist streak. His willingness to live and work among the shrieking ghosts of Kuala Nor has attracted the attention and awe of both nations, which typically spend their time staring at each other and waiting for another war to start. As the story opens, the Taguran royalty (which happens to include a Kitai princess) chooses to reward Tai’s perseverance and respect with an unthinkably lavish gift: 250 Sardian horses, the graceful mounts from the far west that inspire art, poetry, and legend among the Kitai. Before Tai can even begin processing such a gift, he finds himself fending off an unexpected assassination attempt. Reluctantly, he journeys back into the empire of Kitai, in order to discover who wants him dead and why. However, his herd of horses gives him a newfound wealth and power that makes him a new player in Kitai politics, which have taken a dangerous turn since his self-imposed exile.

Though the story lies on the framework of the An Shi Rebellion's beginning years, the novel’s focus remains squarely on Shen Tai, the people he cares about, and the people who have a newfound interest in him and his game-changing horses. Under Heaven is a story about people, who do the best they can when plunged into events they have no control over. In this, Kay does a fantastic job; Tai’s moments of danger and self-discovery dovetail nicely with the occasional bit of omniscient narration highlighting the capricious nature of history and the important role that chance plays.

Honestly, though, the actual plot threads felt like they were tied a little loosely. The plights of the various characters sometimes don’t quite intersect with the main story. This is a conscious choice of Kay’s, as a major theme here is how quickly we can be swept up in the current due to seemingly insignificant choices. However, the subplots that get left unresolved or abruptly halted can be jarring. The pacing gets odd, as well, with the middle being considerable slower than the first act, and the climax appearing almost out of nowhere. Well, not out nowhere, I guess, since political intrigue stories always end with some real shit going down, but I had some sort of cognitive break between the setup and the delivery. I think less time could have been spent on walking from place to place, and more on some of the family intrigue that gets constructed so nicely in the beginning and then oddly short-changed as the story unfolds.

The characters are occasionally unsatisfying, as well, for all that this is a character piece, with many of them needing just a little more nuance and depth; Kay utilizes takes the same “epic archetype” approach to characterization that he did in Tigana. Strangest of all, though, are the characters that are introduced for no real reason. Some are redshirts that are killed off after a few pages of intricate backstory, and one (a courtesan near the beginning) actually takes control of the narrative for part of a chapter, and is subsequently never heard from again. That, in particular, was weird. I spent the rest of the book wondering why I was supposed to care about her. Again, I’m pretty sure Kay did that on purpose- one of those philosophical interjections at the end muses on the truism of incidental, passing characters in history playing out their own dramas and tragedies. Still, it bugged the hell out of me.

But it also made me think of the Chinese epic, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with its cavalcade of minor characters contributing to a more complicated tapestry. Kay researched epic Chinese poetry when writing this, and it shows in these seemingly random intersection of characters, as well as in the attention to beautiful details in the setting and the pensive melancholy that pervades the entire affair. And I’ll admit it; I’m a sucker for epilogues. Seriously, every time I’ve seen people moan and complain about epilogues that are too long or too sappy, I end up loving them when I read them. The epilogue here was the same. I was so satisfied with and emotionally moved by the way in which Kay wrapped his story up that it quelled the growing discontent I was nurturing after getting through the second act.

Overall, this is a beautiful story. Definitely worth looking into if you are interested in historical fiction (the fantasy elements are fairly light, here) or in Asian-inspired fantasy. I don’t find myself quite as awed by this one as I was by Tigana, and I hear that if I liked Tigana, I need to read Kay’s other, better works. However, from a strictly aesthetic standpoint, this is a wonderful elegy that is worth reading simply for its abstractly gorgeous imagery, and for the mood it sets.
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