Under Heaven (book, Guy Gavriel Kay, 2010)
Written for SFX 196.
Love and duty in 8th century China analogue.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s history with a fantasy twist has a huge following. Personally, I’ve always been a little ambivalent about his stories – if you’re going to go to all that trouble, why not set it against a real historical background for added depth? Still, it’s a matter of personal taste, not of objective quality. The man has art.
This latest, standalone tale takes place in the not-China of Kitai (analogous to the Tang period, history fans). Loyal son Shen Tai has been mourning his father, Shen Gao, by burying the dead on a far-away battlefield haunted by ghosts, souls lost to Kitai’s intermittent warfare with the kingdom of Tagura (a Tibet/ Europe hybrid) while Shen Gao was general. Tai’s noble actions attract the attention of the Taguran court, which gifts him with 250 Sardian horses. This is a very big deal; the Kitan are obsessed with these ‘heavenly steeds’ and the self-exiled nobleman finds himself thrown headlong back into the subtle, deadly world of the Imperial Court.
Part dynastic struggle, part love story, part examination of duty versus personal freedom, Under Heaven boasts a complex plot driven by well-drawn characters and replete with subterfuge, Shen Tai himself being a particularly rich creation.
Kay has a couple of annoying writing tics: he’ll prefigure the entrance of a character for ages before actually revealing who they are, he over-relies on repetition for reinforcement, and some sentences, even some scenes, feel like they could have been comfortably excised. Conversely, these same artefacts do help build a measured pace, as languorous as the caresses of the courtesans that populate Kitai, as slow and powerful as the Golden River that bounds its northern edge. Not for those who prefer a faster-paced read, but Kay fans will be satisfied.