Forrest's Reviews > Under Heaven

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
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Apr 27, 2012

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Read from April 08 to 25, 2012

Guy Gavriel Kay has a unique approach to ‘fantasy.’ Take two parts historical fiction, one part mythology, one part magic, stir and serve over a piping hot revolution. I read Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic for the Cannonball last year, and from the very start of Under Heaven, it’s obvious that the two works grew out of the same place. They are both, at their core, stories about empires and the surprising ways that ordinary citizens can change the course of history. Where Sailing to Sarantium looked at the glories of Byzantium and Christian Rome, Under Heaven explores Tang Dynasty China, and more specifically, the period of history known as the An Shi Rebellions. However, Kay may have followed these events too closely to have crafted a really good story.

Under Heaven’s story takes place on two distinct levels. The bulk of the book is concerned with Shen Tai and his questionable good fortune of having received two hundred and fifty of the finest quality horses in the world. Suddenly made a major political player, Tai is simply trying to buy back his life after becoming the target of First Minister Wen Zhou’s fury. We also get to see a bit of Tai’s sister, Li-Mei, who has been made a princess and sold to the northern barbarian tribes. Above Tai’s personal tribulations and those of his friends and family, the book observes the political dance that leads to Kay’s version of the An Shi Rebellions.

Like Sarantium, Under Heaven takes its cues very closely from the historical events that inspired it. Emperor Taizu is a clear copy of Tang ruler, Emperor Xuanzong and his consort Yang Guifei is mirrored in Kay’s Wen Jian. To that end, the events of the imperial plot are very easy to understand, as they follow the events of the An Shi Rebellions to a T. Kay has stated that it is not his intention to portray these historical figures, but to provide us with a peek into one set of possibilities in a setting inspired by these nearly mythological individuals. However, where Sarantium deviates from the official history of Byzantium and the reign of Emperor Justinian, Under Heaven follows the letter of history, leaving only the personal motivations of the players open to exploration. The magic of the setting is almost an afterthought. The book barely warrants its fantasy classification.

What I don’t quite understand is if the point of historical fiction, or very barely historical fantasy, is to explore the possibilities of history and you have chosen to follow the recorded flow of events, why would an author focus on the forgone story? The Sarantine Mosaic proved to be interesting because the story of Crispin, and later Rustem, are the driving forces, not only of the plot, but of the new direction that history takes. While Shen Tai can clearly be said to be shaping the history of his fictional nation, the end result is the same outcome that faced Tang Dynasty China, revolution and years of blood and famine. There is a narrative disincentive to read about a protagonist who is only a bit player in his own story; one who would bow out of the world stage when given half a choice.

To be fair, anyone unaware of Tang Dynasty history would be fully capable of enjoying Under Heaven without running into this mostly aesthetic issue, and Shen Tai’s story is compelling, if wildly unrealistic. As a character he is somewhat lackluster, partly because he has been written to be a man of many roles who likes none of them, but primarily because he is an unwilling participant in his own story. Tai’s primary motivations are untenable by the rules of his culture, and baring two surprising outbursts, he is unwilling to pursue them. This makes it all the more unsatisfying when he gets nearly everything he could possibly want in the ending.

Fundamentally, the problems boil down to misused resources. The setting, plot architecture, supporting characters and writing all indicate this should be a superior novel. But nothing fits together quite right. It is almost as if Kay gathered together all the blocks he could possibly want to build a castle of any scope, but upon construction chose to build a modest cottage. My dislike of the book is built upon a strong knowledge of the era, but there are serious literary flaws that underlie the somewhat academic question any reader of historical fiction must eventually confront.
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