Guy Gavriel Kay is not an author who has a book out every year so when a new one does appear, it rockets to the top of my to read list immediately. I chose to order the US edition of this book, even though it would take longer to arrive and was a bit more expensive, just because the beautiful cover art by Larry Rostant Roc has put on their edition. Kay's last novel Ysabel (2007), a book set in contemporary France, was something of a departure from the style and setting of his more recent works, clearly reaching back to his earliest novels, The Fionavar Tapestry. In Under Heaven Kay seems to have returned to his historical fantasy, books in the style of The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic novels. Like in previous works Kay creates an analogue of a period in history as a backdrop for his story. This time he is taking us back to 8th century China under the Tang dynasty. An interesting choice since most of his readers would be more familiar with European history. A choice that turned out very well indeed. I've seen this book praised and then praised some more in various reviews. I can only say the reviewers were right. It is a brilliant novel.
Shen Tai, the second son of a famous and recently deceased general of the Kitai empire, has elected to spend his time of mourning at the site on a battle that marked his father. Bloody beyond belief, this remote battlefield is still haunted by the ghosts of the unburied dead. Tai is determined to bury as many of them as he can before tradition allows him to return to his normal life again. His efforts do not go unnoticed. The site is guarded by a small garrison of the Kitai empire on one side and an a Taguran (Tibetan) garrison on the other. The Tagurans have send word back to their capital and a Kitai princess, sent to the Tagurans as part of the peace agreement that ended the war, has bestowed an impossibly great honour upon Tai. For his labours he is to receive two hundred and fifty prized Sardian horses.
At no time in its history has the empire as a whole possessed such a number of these horses. It is a gift beyond the imaginable. It is also a death sentence. Tai will not be able to even get the horses to his father's estate without being robbed and murdered. And even if he somehow manages to make it back to civilization in one piece, an even more dangerous political game will begin. The empire is lead by an ageing emperor who does not seem to be as interested in running his empire as he was during his younger years. Control of these horses can shift the balance of power among those seeking influence at court or even the throne itself. In short, Tai is in serious trouble.
There's an awful lot about this novel to admire. For one thing I very much liked the way in which the novel gradually zooms out from Tai's personal problems with his unexpected gift to those of the empire as a whole. The events being described are the opening stages of a civil war known to historians as the An-Shi rebellion (in the book changed to An-Li rebellion), eight years of unparalleled bloodshed, violence, hunger and political chaos. Casualty figures as high as 36 million haven been named. Although it is not certain if there were indeed that many dead, it is quite clear the rebellion itself was catastrophic. It would have been easy to let these dramatic events take centre stage but Kay remains pretty focussed on the direct, often more pressing, problems of his main characters. In an empire at the height of its power, they are not in a position to influence matters greatly. History is the canvas on which Kay paints his story, it is not what the book is about.
Kay captures the inertia of such a large state with fairly limited means of communication very well. The delays, the waiting for new, the ad hoc decisions because nobody is around to give orders. Where fantasy tends to find ways to speed up communication, Under Heaven sticks to what would actually have been available back then. In earlier books Kay inserted a bit of supernatural. There are Shen Tai's ghosts of course and they do have a major impact on one of the opening scenes but ones Tai leaves the valley there is barely a hint of it. This absence is one of the reasons why I think this book is his best one yet. In Tigana and The Last Light of the Sun in particular, supernatural elements felt a bit out of place to me. Not enough to really diminish the reading experience but enough to make me wonder if the story needed it. There is no hint of that in Under Heaven.
One of the things that make Kay's books stand out is his beautiful, poetic prose. There's some fine examples of superb writing in this novel. There's two things I've noticed about thee writing this book in particular. The first is the shift between past and present tense, depending on whether the point of view character is male of female. Sometimes it can be distracting for an author to change back and froth between various styles. It made Elizabeth Bear's By the Mountain Bound, which changes from past to present tense as well as from first to third person depending on the point of view, quite a challenging read. With Kay the transition is so smooth that I actually had to go back and check once I noticed the change. A second thing I noticed about the writing is a technique where he tells you the outcome of a scene and then lets the reader watch it unfold. This is something he's done in several of his books, I remember it from The Lions of Al-Rassan in particular. Not many authors would choose to give the outcome away at the start of the scene but again, Kay pulls it off admirably.
Under Heaven is a book that really has it all. Beautiful use of language, great world building, well developed and interesting characters and an intricate plot that includes court intrigue, a love story, and a dip into Shen Tai's past to examine the motivations for some the hard choices he has to make throughout the book. It is by a fair margin the best book I have read this year. We're not even halfway yet but if this book doesn't end up in the best of 2010 lists we're in for an exceptional year indeed. In other words, this is a wonderful book. Go read it.
Title: Under Heaven
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
First published: 2010