Our book today is Under Heaven, the new fantasy novel (ROC, 2010) by fan favorite author Guy Gavriel Kay, and one of my main consolations in saying it deserves a wider audience than its built-in fan base is the fact that it seems to know that. The book has been given a gorgeous, evocative cover that is entirely free from the ‘weird guy shooting lasers at dragons’ motif that adorns most fantasy novels in some variation and that’s guaranteed to keep readers of mainstream fiction well away. But it’s more than just the cover: the book itself, unless I’m very much mistaken, was written with that mainstream audience in mind.
That’s usually bad news. Kay is a fantasy author (his 1990 Tigana is quite good), and when genre authors stray from their chosen fields into mainstream fiction, the results are seldom worth reading – it’s almost as if the restrictions of the sub-genre, like the corset of haiku, impart both limitation and inspiration. Mary Higgins Clark’s George Washington historical novel makes you long for a dropped cell phone call or a cut brake-line. Even so talented an author as Robert Silverberg lost his way and spent 500 pages pointlessly hacking through historical fiction in Lord of Darkness (and the less said about Alan Dean Foster’s Maori, the better).
Perhaps the trick here is that although the setting of Under Heaven is heavily reminiscent of the 8th century Tang Dynasty, there are still slight traces of fantasy interwoven throughout the book. Slight but ‘real’ nonetheless: fans will be pleased when ghosts are really ghosts, but mainstream readers will find here nothing much that they wouldn’t find in the actual literature of the Tang period, when science had yet to banish the unbelievable from everyday life.
The book begins with the kind epic scenario designed to hook fantasy readers: our still-young hero Shen Tai is in self-imposed exile far from Xinan, the glittering capital of Kitai – he’s in the barren mountains, burying the dead in their thousands left behind in a battle between Kitai and their enemies the Taguran Empire. The spirits of these abandoned dead are angry and active, and Tai is alone in his task, although he’s visited occasionally by a detachment of Taguran border guard, who clandestinely keep watch on him while bringing him supplies and the occasional message. One such encounter early in the book displays an amazing thing about Kay, a thing he shares with very, very few of his fantasy peers – as his career continues, his writing gets more assured, more relaxed. Exchanges like this would be unbearably wooden in the hands of almost any other FantasiCon honoree:
Bytsan said, after a moment, “I was instructed that you were not to be killed.”
Tai snorted. “I am grateful to hear it.”
Bytsan cleared his throat. He seemed awkward suddenly. “There is a gift, instead, a recognition.”
Tai stared again. “A gift? From the Taguran court?”
“No, from the rabbit in the moon.” Bytsan grimaced. “Yes, of course, from the court. Well, from one person there, with persmission.”
The grimace became a grin. The Taguran was sunburned, square-jawed, had one missing lower tooth. “You are slow this morning.”
The gift in question here ends up being so immense, so astonishing, that Tai has no choice but to abandon his self-imposed task and begin the long journey down from the mountains to Xinan. The classic ‘good man tangled in intrigue against his will’ plot is worked here to excellent advantage, as is Kay’s decision to use Tai’s memories of Xinan to whet our appetite for the capital (which is so fully realized it often seems to function as a separate character in the drama) long before the journey takes us there:
Small shops in each ward, open all night long. The Night Soil Gatherers passing with their plaintive warning cry. Logs bumping and rolling through Xinan’s outer walls into the huge pond by the East Market where they were bought and sold at sunrise. Morning beatings and executions in two market squares. More street performers after the decapitations, while good crowds were still gathered. Bells tolling the watch-hours by day and through the night, and the long roll of drums that locked the walls and all the ward gates at sundown and opened them at dawn. Spring flower in the parks, summer fruit, autumn leaves, the yellow dust that was everywhere, blowing down from the steps. The dust of the world. Jade-and-gold. Xinan.
The plot unfolds with masterly precision and a great alteration of types of scenes. There’s hardly a misstep in the whole length of Under Heaven (even one persistent two-person sub-plot that at first irritated me ended up hooking me long before it was woven back into the main plot), and there’s a philosophical bent to much of the proceedings. I don’t remember this tendency being as strong in any of Kay’s previous novels (could our author be getting … old?), and I like it: it enhances the mythic feel of the narrative:
No man could say for certain how the river of time would have flowed, cresting or receding, bringing floods or gently watering fields, had a single event, or even many, unfolded differently.
It is in the nature of existence under heaven, the dissenting scholars wrote, that we cannot know these things with clarity. We cannot live twice, or watch as moments of the past unfurl, like a courtesan’s silk fan. The river flows, the dancers finish their dance. If the music starts again, it is starting anew, not repeating itself.
I won’t need to recommend Under Heaven to Kay’s many fans, but I heartily recommend it to all those mainstream fiction readers out there who’re always looking for a touch of the exotic. This book has exotic by the bucket, and it’s a rousing high adventure story as well (and there are funny bits – Kay is surprisingly adept at dry humor). It’s no substitute for a good hearty reading of Li Po or Tu Fu, mind you, but it reads very nicely alongside them.