Glory and Intrigue: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven

Under Heaven, out today in paperback, is Guy Gavriel Kay’s most recent novel. It’s an epic work of genre-bending, neither quite fantasy nor quite historical fiction. The book is set in Kitai, a kind of alternate-universe Tang Dynasty-era China. Shen Tai, the second son of the recently deceased General Shen Gao, has elected to spend the duration of his mourning period in the wasteland of Kuala Nor. One by one, he’s burying the dead left to rot in the aftermath of a war fought between the Kitai and their neighbors, the Tagurans: a Sisyphean task he has no illusions he’ll ever complete.

At the end of the two-year mourning period, he’s unexpectedly rewarded for his labors. A messenger brings him the tidings that Cheng-wan, the White Jade Princess of neighboring kingdom Tagur, has bestowed upon him the priceless gift of two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. The horses are as much a burden as a reward; suddenly, Shen Tai is a very wealthy man, with the power to influence events across the empire—whether he wants it or not. And, as he finds out when an assassin shows up hot on the heels of the messenger, not everyone is happy about his sudden rise to glory.

MASSIVE SPOILERS ALERT

Guy Gavriel Kay is a fantasist who’s managed to accomplish that rare feat of being both critically acclaimed and popularly beloved. (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this is the only book of his I’ve read, an egregious fault I shall soon be remedying.) His skills as a worldbuilder are extraordinary; he’s brought to life not just Kitai, with its intense political intrigues, rich culture, and vivid landscapes, but a whole host of lands that surround it. The novel’s action is loosely modeled on the final years of Emperor Xuanzong’s reign over China, and Kay captures beautifully the magnificent, doomed splendor of a corrupt empire in the twilight of its glory. His poet-jester Sima Zian is a veritable coup of characterization: a wry, charming commentator on the movement of history whose excessive appetites belie the compassionate and wise observer underneath. Though Kay’s descriptions of Tai’s political dilemmas can get a bit heavy-handed (and I did tire of being told just how valuable those Sardian horses were), his depiction of a world where every sentence, every gesture conveys multiple layers of meaning, and a misspoken word can mean a swift and painful death, is riveting. For a novel so long on scope, there’s really very little plot until the final third, when events snowball toward an inevitable tragic end. It’s strong characterization and the interweaving of relationships between the characters that propels the novel forward and elevates it above the level of a magnificent but static set piece.

I had some troubles, however, with Under Heaven’s female characters. The Precious Consort Wei Jian (whose story closely follows that of real-life imperial concubine Yang Guifei) is complex and believable as an ambitious woman whose only route to power is through her physical beauty and ability to manipulate those around her. She’s a brilliant combination of capriciousness and determination. Kay deftly shows us that an iron will is only thinly veiled beneath her veneer of graciousness. But she’s still fully human, as generous as she is ruthless, and it’s impossible as a reader not to become as besotted with her as the Kitans seem to be.

The other main female characters were less compelling and ultimately disappointing. Kay seems to have an inexplicable desire to see the surviving main characters happily paired off at the end of the novel’s action, a move that makes little sense in terms of their characters. Shen Li-Mei, Tai’s sister, is as tough and independent as a woman in her position—high-born and basically a commodity to be traded for political gain—can be; yet at the novel’s end she trots off to the capital to pursue the affections of a man who once molested her at a party. The courtesan Spring Rain, Tai’s onetime lover who’s bought by the ill-fated imperial adviser Wen Zhou (Tai’s rival in both love and politics), ends up in an equally sudden and improbable marriage that arrives out of nowhere. Wei Song, one of the fierce and legendary Kanlin Warriors who Tai hires as his personal guard, progresses from a ferocious and totally competent warrior to a woman who throws aside her career without hesitation to spend the rest of her life with Tai a few sentences after she learns he loves her (and, considering that admission is mere pages after he’s mourned the loss of Spring Rain, the woman he’s loved throughout the novel, it comes as a bit of a surprise).

Kay has a real gift for creating compelling female characters struggling to determine the course of their lives in a world where women are little better than chattel, and it’s a letdown to see him drop that at the end for the dubious benefits of matrimonial bliss all around. It’s a disservice to his readers, and a disservice to his own work: he has no problem elsewhere with ambiguity and loss. Smart readers expect satisfying endings, not happy ones. “The empire might be in shambles, but at least everybody’s married” rings a false note in a novel that deals so well with the arbitrary hand of fate and the wilderness of loose ends and unfinished stories that make up what we call history.

In some ways, I suppose that’s the peril of setting out to write a truly ambitious book: the challenge of creating an ending worthy of the world you’ve built can be nearly insurmountable. As a reader, I’m always more interested in the work of writers who dream big and take risks, and though Under Heaven’s final pages left me cold, the rewards of the book more than balanced out my frustrations. I’m delighted to have been introduced to Kay’s work, and I’m looking forward to reading more.


The Rejectionist writes about things. She blogs at www.therejectionist.com.

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