Monday, May 31, 2010
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Under Heaven is a historical fantasy based on the 8th century Tang dynasty in China. Shen Tai, the hero of the story calls his country Kitai. Kitai is the Russian word for China. This story draws from asian and eurasian history. Sardia where Shen Tai receives a gift of Sardian horses is a medieval historical country along the Silk Road.
The historical elements make this novel beautiful to read. Guy Gavriel Kay uses traditional eight line Chinese verse throughout the book. He acknowledges Li Po, the Chinese poet as his inspiration. One of the secondary characters, Sima Zian is called an Immortal because of the beautiful poetry he writes.
The story itself has a diverse variety of elements. It is much more than just sword fighting and magical battles. In fact, the magic described here is different, the bogu tribesmen have shamans who communicate with animals, there is forbidden astrology called the "School of Night", warrior monks practice martial arts, and the Emperor of Kitai drinks alchemical potions to increase his potency.
There are beautiful descriptions of bejeweled courtesans playing the Pipa, dancing, and wiling away the evenings. There is decpetion, intrigue, wine (peach, pepper, grape, and spiced), sex, assassination attempts, battles, and history. The setting is in the countryside of Kitai, at the imperial court, and beyond The Long Wall, and in the grasslands of the Bogu. The characters are soldiers, poets, noblemen, noblewomen, warrior monks, tribesmen, imperial bureaucrats, and concubines.
The hero, Shen Tai is propelled through the story by forces greater than himself. He starts with a great action, burying the dead on a battlefield as part of mourning the death of his father, the General Shen. He survives many intrigues and battles and does not seek what is given to him. The characters make terrible mistakes which lead to tragedies and civil war. This makes the story compelling.
This is an interesting fantasy written in a literary style with both an epilogue and acknowledgements for the historical and literary research put into writing this book. Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian writer who won the World Fantasy Award in 2008 for his book Ysabel. His official website is Bright Weavings. http://www.brightweavings.com/