I have come to realize Guy Gavriel Kay is the sneakiest, sliest, deadliest writer of fantasy on the market today. Oily smooth prose the primary weapon, he tells fascinating mytho-operatic tales from ages past. The dagger of bittersweet drama his killing blow, the reader is entranced before they have a chance to realize their politically correct toes have been stepped on. Silently from the shadows, 2011’s Under Heaven displays the fine degree to which Kay has perfected the art of killing.
Like the majority of Kay’s fiction, Under Heaven uses the details of real-world history as its backdrop. Changing the names to protect the innocent, Under Heaven uses Tang Dynasty China, particularly the An-Shi Rebellion, rendered as the Kitai and An-Li Rebellion respectively, as its story analog. An event that overturned the greatest civilization the world had seen, the drama started at the top and affected everyone to the bottom, millions uprooted or killed, including the emperor. Under Heaven, while skipping the bottom, contains all of the tragedy and drama of the Rebellion’s unraveling in tragic, fantastical form.
Under Heaven opens with Shen Tai, second son of the great Kitai general Shen Gao. His father having passed away, Tai has elected to go west and bury the bones of soldiers in pious sufferance rather than spend his days in mourning in the busy capital. A dutiful son, he is found digging graves at the beginning of the novel when a messenger arrives with the most extraordinary news: the princess of the neighboring land Tagura has gifted him two-hundred and fifty of the finest war horses the world has ever seen. The crosshairs of myriad political interests immediately on Tai’s head, he must come up with a plan to stay alive while using the horses honorably. Amidst treachery and deceit, court intrigue and assassination attempts, Tai works his way back into the complex realpolitik of Kitai government to uncover the plot behind the horses—and survive, if he can.
Striking a fine balance between the historical and operatic, Under Heaven is sweeping drama with strong, realistic Chinese flavor. Kay’s prose capturing the essence of mythopoeia, the reader is swept along with the characters into the grand events of Dynasty-threatening war. Part of a rich storytelling experience, legends are built and destroyed, and drama reigns queen. For escapism, this may be as pure as product gets. Floating through the clouds of luxuriant story, however, one may lose sight of:
Where there is much uproar in genre today about having progressive female characters, proper social and cultural representation, and other post-modern concerns, Kay plows ahead in the traditional mold. His writing so good, nobody seems to notice that all his women are beautiful and intelligent and stools for men, the glorification of materialism, and that, like Tolkien, a traditional social hierarchy, spearheaded by an aristocracy rich and attractive and tragic beyond ordinary, is quixotic. Wei Song the female ninja assassin, for example, is perfectly chaste in society and a fierce warrior in battle—a man’s fantasy woman. Shen Tai is the hero of old: tireless in a fight, a gentleman, pious, unafraid to use his rank for personal gain—and a poet, to boot. Romanticizing many of the ideas considered faux-pas by much modern genre criticism, the popularity of Under Heaven becomes makes for interesting reading in the meta-cultural context.
In the end, Under Heaven may be Kay’s most accomplished novel to date. The art of mainstream product perfected, Kay’s quality of prose and depth of scene perpetually fool the reader into believing they are experiencing something more than beautifully conceived opera. Having lived in China for four years, I can attest to the level of Chinese historical detail Kay implements into the story, which, if it weren’t for the name changes and slight elements of fantasy, would make for perfect historical fiction. For those times when you just want to sit back, relax, and not think about any p.c. bullshit, Under Heaven satisfies that desire for escapism of the purest. I, however, was hoping for more Raise the Red Lantern and less Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon…