by Guy Gavriel Kay
“You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of these glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.”
Well, Shen Tai – hermit, son of a famous general, and the hero of Under Heaven, the novel by Guy Gavriel Kay set in a fictionalised version of Tang Dynasty China – has just been given two hundred and fifty.
I have mixed feelings about Under Heaven. This is a Kay novel, so at a “micro”, nuts-and-bolts level, the writing is very good. The characters are vividly drawn, from beggar to scheming minister to random foot soldier to Shen Tai himself. Even the least pleasant amongst them becomes sympathetic when we view the world through his or her eyes. The settings of the novel are distinct, from a haunted lake to the steppes to the splendours of the imperial capital. And Kay has a wonderful eye for the way the world works – the cruelty of random chance, the unfairness of history and folk memory, and on a happier note, the human capacity for kindness and loyalty and devotion.
My problem, rather, is with the big picture – the plot in which all those elements are wrapped. Under Heaven is not a George R R Martin or J R R Tolkien or Joe Abercrombie-style novel about Stuff Happening. It is not even a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, such as his earlier Tigana or The Lions of al-Rassan, about Stuff Happening. Rather, though Stuff Happens in the background*, Under Heaven’s plot structure is fundamentally not that of the conventional, three-act, build-to-a-climax-and-denouement novel. The story, for want of a better word, meanders through this beautifully described setting and past these beautiful people. For a lot of readers, this won’t be a problem. But it left me dissatisfied.
Was Under Heaven worth the money I paid, the time I sank in? Yes. I appreciated Kay’s sense for human nature and for life. I appreciated the worldbuilding, and a couple of the characters and scenes will stick in my mind. But it’s neither one of my favourite reads nor even my favourite Kay. All in all, worth a look – judging by the reception this book received, you may like it more than I – but I am glad that I waited for the paperback to take that look.
* If you know anything at all about Tang Dynasty history, you will be able to guess what that stuff concerns: I saw a major plot development almost right away, and all I know about the era is the name of one historical figure, his fate and that of a few of his contemporaries, and what its pottery looked like. The fact that this didn’t spoil Under Heaven for me, I think, reinforces my point about what the book isn’t about.
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