Prior to the last few months, I’ve read little Asian-inspired fantasy. I can’t say exactly why that is. My fascination has always been with European history, myth, and legend. Native American history and mythology has always had a pull on me as well.
But the Far East has primarily stayed off the radar. The history of the Silk Road countries – the Middle-East, China, India, etc… – is fascinating, and has an immense bearing on the European history that I confessed an interest in earlier. The Far East gave Europe spices, weapons, slaves, new modes of thought, Ghengis Khan, and the Black Death, amongst many, many other things. European history would be far different without them.
So what, exactly, does it take to draw me to an Asian fantasy novel? Guy Gavriel Kay, of course.
Kay is one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, and moving fantasy novelists writing today. His historically-inspired fantasy novels – particularly Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, & A Song For Arbonne – deserve to be mentioned among the very best fantasy novels ever, in my opinion.
So when I noticed the release of his newest book late last year, Under Heaven, I knew I had to have it, even if it’s subject was outside of my realm of knowledge. Especially since it was outside my realm of knowledge.
Under Heaven lives up to its promise in just about every way. Kay once again captures the essence of a time period, in this case Tang Dynasty China. It is full of snippets of song and poetry, lyrical fragments that echo the beauty of traditional Chinese verse and is full of recurring Far Eastern imagery:
- Why sir, it is true: on the shores of Kuala Nor
White bones have lain for many years.
No one has gathered them. The new ghosts
Are bitter and angry, the old ghosts weep.
Under the rain and within the circle of mountains
The air is full of their cries.
The narrative follows the stories of two protagonists: Shen Tai, who has gone to the battleground of Kuala Nor in his grieving time after his father’s death to honor the dead; and his sister Li-Mei, who in Tai’s absence has been given as a bride to the leader of the barbarian Bogü people north of the wall.
For his work honoring and burying the battlefield dead, Tai is given a priceless gift that sets off a chain reaction of political intrigue, with Tai at the center, and he has to fight to merely stay alive. Meanwhile, north of the wall, Li-Mei finds herself in mysterious, unexpected company.
The characters are exactly what one expects out of a Kay novel – fully-rounded, interesting, thoughtful. Kay’s protagonists are a thoughtful bunch, and Shen Tai and Li-Mei are no exception.
And as usual, even the antagonists of the story are shown in their many shades of grey. Self-centered, stubborn, and power-hungry, certainly. But fully human in their desires and goals, as prone to mistakes and miscalculations as anyone else.
I have read elsewhere online that many were not happy with the ending. The novel does change pace during the final third of the novel, as if Kay had far too much story to wrap up within a single volume. The main narrative arc of the novel comes to rest directly before the primary action that the novel has been building toward, and I can see how some might find it anti-climactic.
I, however, struggle to find fault with it. Can you have a novel that takes place directly before the start of WWII? Does it then have to encompass WWII, or can it merely encapsulate its events and the parts the characters played in those events? That is the situation here – wherein the main novel essentially ends prior to a major event – and that event (and our characters’ roles in that event) are wrapped up epilogue-style, as if by a future historian looking back.
While I don’t find fault with the hurried dénouement of Under Heaven, I did find myself wishing to spend more time in Kay’s alternate China. I certainly wouldn’t have been opposed to two books to tell the entire tale.
By turns beautiful and heartbreaking, Under Heaven is not to be missed.