Guy Gavriel Kay: Under Heaven

Finally.  I finally set aside time to read Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest book, Under Heaven.  As I’ve said before, Kay’s books take preparation for me.  I can’t just, on a whim, pick one up and read it on the spur of the moment.  I can’t just open it for twenty minutes on my lunch break and then ten minutes after breakfast and toted around for a page or so now and then.  I always remember what Tigana did to me, and, that in mind, I make sure that I start a Kay when I have plenty of time to devote to it.

I came home from work last Friday with a headache that would stop a horse (heh) – the allergy meds I take purposely to stave these sinus headaches off didn’t, for whatever reason, help that weekend.  However, somehow I can read when I have one of these headaches.  I can’t function, but I can read – which I guess is just further proof that book-in-hand is my natural state.   So, Friday night, the whole weekend ahead of me, I started Under Heaven.

(For once, I think I’ve managed to avoid spoilers.)

The story begins with one Shen Tai, second son of a great general who has just, two years and a half ago (not quite), died.  The mourning period is that long, two and half years, and requires complete withdrawal from society.  And Tai, as part of his mourning, to honor his father, has come back to Kuala Nor, where his father won a great victory.  That victory cost his people 40,000 Kitan men – and cost the enemy, the Tagurans, 60,000 men.  None of these soldiers received burial, and an unburied body means a ghost – and Tai very very quickly found that, indeed, there are about 100,000 ghosts crying and screaming through the night.  His self-appointed task is to bury these soldiers … or, at least as many as can be buried in two and a half years by one man.  It’s mad – and, in a civilization that echoes 7th century Tang Dynasty China, steeped in honour.

As he starts another day of digging, he is pondering where his life will take him now that the mourning period is ending – whether he will go back to what he was trying to make of himself when his father died, or … something else.  And then, with the unrolling of a letter, the decision is gone from his hands.  In recognition of his mad, honourable actions, the White Jade Princess Cheng-wan, a bride sent from Kitai to Tagur some twenty years ago, is – with permission – giving Tai a gift.

“It is a large gift”, says Bytsan, the Taguran soldier who brings the scroll.  He is, apparently, a master of understatement.

He is also a man who rides one of the Dragon horses, Heavenly Horses, the magnificent, fiery steeds imported from Sardia because for all its wonders and resources Kitai does not have the grazing lands to breed great horses.  They are rare, and wondrous, and coveted even by those who don’t ride.

You gave a man one of these Sardian horses to reward him greatly.  You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.

The Princess Chang-wan, a royal consort of Tagur now thorugh twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.

That was the number.  Tai read it one more time.

And that quickly Tai’s life is turned inside out.  Starting right then, he needs to reintegrate himself into the world again, immediately, after having been almost completely isolated for his mourning period.  Starting then, he needs to start thinking like a courtier, a politician, a strategist … or he will die.

The book starts with a tight focus on Tai, and for most of the book it keeps returning to him, in a POV so tight it might almost as well be first-person.  As Tai re-enters the world, occasionally the perspective splinters off – the second chapter starts in Bytsan’s head, and later we see through the eyes of several other characters.  Interestingly, the female POV’s (P’s OV) are all in the present tense; often Kay uses that for scenes of deep mysticism.  The closer he draws to the Ta-Ming Palace, the more glimpses of others’ thoughts we see, the wider grows the ring of personages, and the larger his deed grows: what started off as a really quite simple gesture to honor his father is magnified – he might easily have been killed by those who saw his coming there as arrogance – and now this … Poor Tai is an ordinary man, really, second son of a great man, intelligent – but not a genius in diplomacy or poetry or any of the other skills he will need.  Just an ordinary man doing his damnedest to keep himself alive.

We’re never given the motivation for the White Jade Princess to have done this to him; either she knew exactly what the gift would do to him, or she was like those politicians who burble on about healthcare reform when they’ve never had to worry about how to pay for a doctor’s visit, or cut unemployment benefits when they’ve never had to worry about how to buy groceries this weekend – – or, indeed, like Malcolm bloody Forbes pondering the mistake so many Americans make in not doing what they love for a living. It may have been a combination – “some is good, more is better” and “stir the pot”… I would have enjoyed one (present-tense) passage illuminating what was in her mind, but as it is the mystery works just fine. Kay is not one to answer all your questions – that’s part of the reality of his worlds.

Happily for Tai, he has good friends, and finds others along the way – and he has the intelligence to know that he does not have the skills to navigate the treacherous waters of the court. So he goes his own way, and does the unexpected – and it’s a joy to watch. I loved this character. He’s not my favorite – Tigana has most of those – but Tai is a wonderful companion. He has flaws, he’s aware of his flaws, and he does not react to much of anything in just the way the reader or the people around him expect. Can’t ask for much more than that. He reacted to political intrigue and webs being spun around him and plots surfacing and submerging again (and how’s that for a mixed metaphorical bag) much the way I think I, or any reasonably intelligent but unversed person, would react if thrown into the middle of that mess – step by step, and thinking fast, terrified and exhilerated and praying a lot…

I loved Tai. I loved Spring Rain and wanted her to be triumphant in the end. I loved Wei Song, and how she skirted (heh) the stereotypes. I loved Sima Zian even more. I hated Tai’s brother – and then not so much – and only Kay can leave you hating a character but utterly respecting him at the same time. I think the only thing I could have wished for would have been … more of the horses.

Only Kay can take an action in a character’s past (here, what happened with Meshag – the ending of which I have to say I thought was a horrible mistake) and spin its repercussions through the action of the current story like this. Only Kay can withhold the information, and withhold it a little more, and then take you right out of the current story into the past in such a way that not only is it not a jarring interruption to the current narrative, it’s the satisfaction of a need to know, and so far beyond info-dump that everyone who aspires to write should study it.

Only Kay can take a world as alien to modern America as Tang Dynasty China, and make it so comprehensible and fascinating and, still, so mysterious and complex …

Only Kay (and a very few others) can flood a narrative with art and light like this.

Only Kay (and a very few others) – can set up a situation which is so intensely painful, and so very inevitable, but still so unpredictable as the scene in the inn yard. Only Kay can show so clearly, so vividly, so, sometimes, painfully how the course of a life, a love, a kingdom can turn on the decision of a moment, on a word spoken (or not) or heeded (or not). Only Kay can spin out from an intense focus on a single character to a global view and back again with such skill and clarity. Only Kay can write something so simultaneously gritty and lyric, so painful and euphoric. Only Kay writes like this – which is terrible, because such extraordinariness takes time … but which is good, because if every book was this intense reading would be an exhausting process.

Under Heaven was somehow not as wrenching as others – I’ve said before how devastating Tigana was the first time I read it; it’s in anticipation of something like that that I will not read Kay anywhere but at home in private. It goes toward what I saw on SYTYCD, with the dancers shaken and somber after emotional performances, and how I’ve felt coming out of some films (Schindler’s List, for a prime example): there are some works of art that leave one unready to return to normal life and ordinary company for a while. They need space before, to prepare, if possible, and most certainly space after. (I’ve often thought that there should be some kind of airlock in theatres where someone could go to recover a bit before going out into the world – especially into daylight, which just seems wrong sometimes.) I didn’t cry at the inn yard, which surprised me a little even as I was reading. I did cry at the end, which was as inevitable as the events of the inn yard. It’s not my favorite of Kay’s books – I really do need to read Tigana again – and Arbonne – and Al-Rassan – and the Sarantine Mosaic… but Kay’s writing on his worst day is so far superior to anyone else’s that “favorite” is almost irrelevant. It’s a joy and an honor just to open his books.

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6 Responses to Guy Gavriel Kay: Under Heaven

  1. Helen says:

    I have read enough of the above to know when to stop ~ a soon as you began to relate a part of the story line ~ since I opened Under Heaven only last night. My experience with reading GGK’s works are fairly close to yours however, I do have a distinct advantage in that I only work two days a week, which leaves a lot of time to dedicate. I shall return to read this properly once I am done.

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  3. stewartry says:

    No spoilers! I promise! :) I look forward to your thoughts on the book – and I envy you reading it for the first time!

  4. Great review. I agree with everything you said, especially how only Kay “can spin out from an intense focus on a single character to a global view and back again with such skill and clarity.”

    I felt the middle is more leisurely plotted than Al-Rassan or Tigana, but after reading the final third (I just finished the book this evening), I totally understand why he wrote it that way. I’ll have to think more about the book, but it may be one of my favorites of his.

  5. stewartry says:

    Thank you! I’m with you – it’s one of my favorites as well.

  6. Crys says:

    “Only Kay can take a world as alien to modern America as Tang Dynasty China, and make it so comprehensible and fascinating and, still, so mysterious and complex …”

    Unfortunately, for someone who is somewhat familiar with Tang Dynasty China, the retelling of an extremely popular historical/literary story is too close to the original tale for comfort. While I definitely enjoyed Under Heaven and have always loved GGK’s mastery over the narrative prose, I didn’t have as favourable a reaction as others. Though I definitely agree that GGK at his worst is far superior to many writers’ best.

    Anyway, thanks for the review! It made me itching to go re-read the book…

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