Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Review by novelist Midori Snyder of http://msnyder.typepad.com/the_labyrinth/. Reproduced with kind permission.
The opening chapter of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Under Heaven (set in an imagined T’ang China), introduces Shen Tai, a man embarked on an impossible task at Kuala Nor, the abandoned battle site between the Imperial armies of the Kitai and theTagur. Daily,Tai leaves his frugal hut on the edge of the battlefield to gather and bury the co-mingled skeletons of the two armies while at night he endures the ghostly screams of the still unburied dead. It is an act intended to honor his recently deceased father, the General Shen Gao, who once fought on the disputed battlefield.
It is a slow, gorgeous chapter, Kay’s lavish descriptions of the remote landscape, the beauty of nature at odds with the mangled bones half hidden in the tall grasses. Here, he meditates on his father’s life, and his own, recounting the various paths he has followed in his life — the soldier, the ascetic kanlin warrior, the drunken student studying for the civil service exam, the poet, the selfish lover and favorite of a beautiful courtesan — lives all left behind when he came to Kuala Nor and emptied himself in the service of the dead.
But Tai’s solitary life abruptly comes to an end when a Tiguran officer informs Tai that in recognition of his service to the dead at Kuala Nor, the Tiguran Princess has given him 250 Sardian Horses. The gift is extravagant beyond imagination, where to receive even one of these magnificent T’ien ma (Heavenly Horses) is regarded as the event of a lifetime. Yet, it is a gift that comes with extraordinary dangers as there are many in the Imperial Courts that covet the Sardian Horses for they are a distinct advantage in battle. Tai must return to the Imperial Courts and present himself to the Emperor for word of such a powerful gift will travel quickly. In order to ensure his safety, a Tiguran general who befriended Tai at Kuala Nor draws up a plan that states that the horses are to be held in safe keeping until such time as Shen Tai, and only Shen Tai will come in person to retrieve them. It is a fragile ruse to protect him from assassination on his long journey to the Emperor.
From the ghost-haunted plains of Kuala Nor, the novel opens up into an increasingly densely packed story of the journey, stopping at outposts, small towns, then cities, and finally to the Imperial city itself. Along the way Tai encounters adversaries who would kill him and unlikely protectors who would see him safely to the end of his journey. The closer to the Imperial Courts he moves, the more complicated the plots and counter plots become for he is only a small part in a much larger power struggle.The novel fills up with memorable characters — Wei Song, the spirited kanlin warrior who uses her considerable skills defending Tai from assassins; Sima Zian, the famous “Banished Immortal” poet whose knowledge of the courts is exceeded only by his capacity to drink, womanize,and write poetry. Tai will gain the confidences of grizzled outpost commanders, barbarian generals, the Emperor’s Consort, stewards, servants, and beggars alike. He will also gain enemies from former rivals in the court and rebellious generals hoping to procure the Sardian Horses. As he returns to the familiar places of his former lives, he will find them and his family and friends much changed — the fellow students now ranking civil servants trapped in the intrigues of a shifting court, the courtesan he once loved now the prize possession of his enemy, his own brother embroiled in Imperial politics, and his sister forced into a political marriage with a barbarian.
Kay offers a light touch of fantasy in the novel — one that is very suited to the otherwise historical sensibilities of the story. But that is one of Kay’s strengths as a writer — to effortlessly merge the two distant narratives into one. The ghosts are powerful, dangerous reminders of the violence of war. They alternately threaten those who come near them, but they also serve to protect Tai, for they sense in his selfless act the possibility of genuine peace at last. When Tai’s younger sister escapes her arranged marriage, it is to wander through the vast steppes with a shape-shifter, trapped by a curse to live human in form, but more animal in spirit.
Kay is a master at weaving all of these different threads into a sumptuous novel. The historical details give the writing texture without ever weighing it down, and the language — as though ever mindful of the inspirational influence of the T’ang poets — is sensual and vivid. And while the novel provides a huge, sweeping history, Shen Tai makes for a satisfying guide and hero — a man of integrity with a complicated past, the heart of a poet but the ability to think on his feet, and the confidence to command. Yet it should be noted that the women of this novel are equally fascinating — seemingly powerless under society’s constraints whether daughters of generals, prostitutes, or Imperial consorts, they are adept at survival, intelligent, and resilient, capable agents of change themselves.
Under Heaven is a big novel, elegantly written, and utterly satisfying. Go for it.