Saturday, June 26, 2010

Book Review: Under Heaven

usunderheavenReaders might remember my post from a few weeks back lauding and recapping the novels of my favorite author, Guy Gavriel Kay, in preparation for a review of his newest book, Under Heaven. After a savory month of taking my sweet time slipping through its pages, I am prepared to discuss my thoughts here.

First off, I will say this: I have never read a Kay book that I didn’t like. Recognizing that expectation, I was in no way disappointed.

Framed in fantasy world that mirrors the glory of the Tang Dynasty in 8th century China – a time known for great progress and stability – the story begins simply with a single character, Shen Tai, who has been honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead at a great battle site where his father served as a general. From there the tale unfolds through the events leading up to the bloody and chaotic An Shi rebellion, a period that saw the population  in China decline by approximately 36 million.

Of course, in Kay’s world (The Empire of Kitai, rather than China), all these historical figures, places, and events, have slightly different names with just enough familiarity for someone knowledgeable to discover their origins while establishing just enough divergence to grant Kay  the artistic elbow-room that he needs to create a story. An Shi, the foreign, obese, powerful, and brutal general from the north becomes An Li (or Roshan, when referred to colloquially by his barbarian name). The capital city of present day Xi’an, known then as Chang’an, becomes the Xinan. References to Japan in the east name the Koreini Peninsula.There is little subtlety in his name-changes; Kay is not trying to hide his influences. This stylistic choice is one that I respect and enjoy, especially if I’m slightly familiar with the history that he’s employing. For the instances in which Kay chooses history that I know pathetically little about – like this one, for example – it gives me a fun excuse to learn it with context.

As the story opens, Tai has been spending nearly a year and half burying the dead at Kuala Nor between borders of the empire of Kitai and the country of  Tagur (which I believe represents the Tibetan Empire) to honor his father’s memory. He gives equal weight to the remains of both Kitan and Taguran forces. After a chapter of pure monologue and retrospect by our isolated protagonist, a messenger arrives from the Taguran army to inform Tai of the gift of 250 horses from the far western country of Sardia, granted to him by the married-off Kitai princess Cheng-wan, now wife of the Taguran Prince, to honor what he has done to quiet the ghosts that moan and stir by the lake.

You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.”

From this point Tai recognizes that his life will quickly become complicated, only further motivated by the immediate arrival of an old friend and the subsequent appearance of Tai’s first would-be assassin. Understanding that the second-son of a military general must now make his way to an aging emperor, quickly thrusting him in an unfamiliar role enmeshed in potentially deadly political intrigue, Tai departs for the capital.

In addition to the raw pleasure that I get from Kay’s storytelling ability, I have found in his latest books an exploratory style and personality that has developed from novel to novel. His previous work, Ysabel, departed from his traditional historical-fantasy settings to create a modern fantasy. It seemed to me to indicate Kay’s interest in pursuing new directions within his writing. I thought Ysabel was amazing, and I’m a skeptic about contemporary fantasy. I assumed Under Heaven would be a return to form, which in many ways it was.

But what caught my attention in this novel, different from those previous, was Kay’s complete immersion in the poetic style of eastern mysticism and philosophy. At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on what felt so different about the flow of his writing this time around. It seemed choppy at times, smooth and rhythmic at others. Naturally, in a culture that emphasized poetry and metaphor, Kay’s characters were often poets or trained to at least recite and compose poetry frequently, and after reading enough of these somewhat-awkward, somewhat-lovely verses, it came together for me. The poems felt choppy because they were cross-cultural, and anglicized into a language that they weren’t meant to be in. Everything about Kay’s novel suddenly read to me like translated eastern language-art often does. I was impressed.

When I realized that, it was all over. The story could essentially have gone to hell and I wouldn’t have cared. Kay so masterfully used the English language like a brush-stroke, leaving behind that sort of feeling that I get from modern art where I feel too inferior to understand the complexity in its subtlety. Then Kay juxtaposes his poetry with the brutality, xenophobia, death and loss that he so masterfully reveals to you with his already honed abilities as an author. One of the themes that Kay returns to in Under Heaven is that of balance, an idea that drove many of the greatest writings that emerged from ancient China; the balance between your personal desires and your public duty, between the internal and the external needs of the individual, between beauty and the necessity of the ugly, between the ideal world and the world that unravels beyond our control.

The women of this story are beautiful, intelligent, and deeply manipulative – some for good, others for motivations that will forever remain in the fog. They are present to drive almost every turning point in the story, and Kay chooses to stylistically write their points of view in the present tense. This choice, in my opinion, often seems more self-indulgent and annoying than anything else. But from Kay [naturally, since I’m already enamored enough to support him almost unequivocally] it was brilliant. Not only do these women – the stunningly beautiful consort of the emperor, a former Sardian courtesan turned concubine to the first minister, Tai’s young sister Li-Mei who has been raised to the imperial family only to be married off to a barbarian leader to the north – shape the story and the fate of their world through their actions, they are also portrayed with this constant sense of the present. They have the ability to change the story as it is happening, whereas everyone else must recall it as it has happened. Near the climactic conclusion, we constantly hear Tai’s narrative voice describing the standout moments, recounting what he would later look back on to always remember from those important events. Initially hesitant, I came to absolutely love this stylistic choice.

Obviously I loved this book. I had to stretch to really find a complaint with it, though perhaps it is a weakness that I myself created with my high expectations. I have always found Kay’s endings to be gripping, climactic and shocking, always pulling me in, leading me by the nose, and then deeply satisfying me even as they were tragic or unexpected. The ending of this one wasn’t quite as strong as many of his others. But that’s what being good at something will do to you. Great becomes the norm and merely “better than good” becomes disappointing.

The world could bring you poison in a jeweled cup, or surprising gifts. Sometimes you don’t know which of them it was…