Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Published: Penguin Books, 2010
Awards Nominated: Locus Fantasy Award, World Fantasy Award
The Book:
“In his latest innovative novel, the award-winning author evokes the dazzling Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China in a story of honor and power.

It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.

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. Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already... “

With Under Heaven, I’ve actually finished reading all of this year’s nominees for the World Fantasy Award (all but one are reviewed on this blog).  I didn’t previously state my intention to do this, simply because I wasn’t sure if I’d have time before the winner was announced.  I’ll put up a post with a prediction of the winner and thoughts on the nominees soon!
My Thoughts:
The setting of Under Heaven is a fictional country called ‘Kitai’, which is based on the society and events of China during the 8th century Tang Dynasty.  It’s pretty clear that Kay has done a lot of research on his chosen historical period, and his depiction of Kitai is intricate and atmospheric.  Beyond geography and general social structure, I enjoyed the inclusion of poetry and superstition.  I don’t have the expertise to judge English poems written to echo Tang Dynasty styles, but I think their inclusion throughout the story strengthened the sense of place.  I also enjoyed the inclusion of supernatural elements.  Some things were written as ‘mere superstition’, but others, like the dead spirits at Kuala Nor and the rites of the barbarian shamans in the north, were undeniably real.  I loved the reverence with which the characters treated the supernatural, and how none of it was ever completely explained.  Kitai is a vivid, magical place to set an adventure.
The story hops around from character to character, with the third-person omniscient voice giving a general detached feeling to the narration.  The three main storylines would be those of Shen Tai, who is gifted with 250 Sardian horses, his sister Li Mei, who travels into the north, and his ex-lover Spring Rain, a courtesan.  They're certainly likable enough characters, but they don’t seem to have much agency.  The three of them feel like they are essentially observer characters.  Kay has set up his story just before huge nation-wide climactic events, and their personal plotlines seem to exist mostly to maneuver them into a position where they can watch these things happen.

Aside from the three major characters, there are occasional brief segments from the point of view of minor characters, which are sometimes never mentioned again.  I think the point of these segments was to show the far-reaching effects of the story.  However, the inclusion of additional observer characters, and ones that I didn’t know or care about at all, seemed a little superfluous.  Though I didn’t dislike Tai, Rain, or Li Mei, I feel like I might have enjoyed the story more if it were about more active, pivotal characters (Such as Prince Shinzu, General An Li, First Minister Wen Zhou, Precious Consort Wen Jian, etc.).
Perhaps because these characters are primarily observers, the story seems to move along rather slowly. Most of the narrative seems to describe the three main characters moving from place to place.  Often, the traveling serves as an opportunity for them to flash back to earlier events in their life.  It is on one such journey that we learn a huge portion of Shen Tai’s life story.  I enjoyed hearing about his eventful history, but I was a little irritated when he did finally reach his destination.  Upon his arrival, he realized that he had no idea what he was going to do.  His explanation was that he had traveled too quickly to think about these things.  I admit that I laughed out loud when I realized that he’d had time to ponder his life story in detail during this journey, but he hadn’t bothered to take a little time from past-introspection to think about his current deadly situation.
His odd lack of foresight ties into some other minor issues I had with certain storytelling decisions.  Shen Tai spends a lot of time considering how he is not prepared to enter deadly court politics, and how he is in such a precarious situation that one wrong move could get him killed.  However, when he is actually at court, I lost count of the number of times I read some variation of the sentence, “He hadn’t known he was going to say/do that.”  I would think, if the slightest misstep could get one killed, one might make the effort to be aware of what one’s tongue and body were doing.  Another minor issue I had was with Kay’s habit of artificially withholding information from the reader.  Often, when a character received some crucial information, the reader would just be informed of the receipt, instead of being told the information itself.  Information was not generally withheld from the reader for very long, but it felt like it was jarring me out of the story every time it happened. 
For all my complaints, I did like the story of Under Heaven. Curiously, though, I enjoyed the story much more in retrospect than I did while reading it.  Taken as a whole, it is an elegant story about the lives of various people navigating through a deadly and tumultuous time period.  The novel shows how they intersect with each other and the great waves of history.  However, taken as individual parts in progress, it was very slow-paced, featured characters that had a frustrating lack of agency, and repeatedly used some narrative devices that I don’t really enjoy.  I think there is a lot to appreciate in this novel, even though I also found a lot to complain about.
My Rating: 3/5
Under Heaven is a sprawling tale, set in a fictional representation of the 8th century Tang Dynasty China.  The place and society are very meticulously and vividly described.  The atmosphere of the novel benefitted from the inclusion of poetry and the reverent attitude towards the occasional supernatural elements, which were (to my delight) never fully explained.  The major characters, Shen Tai, his sister Li Mei, and his ex-lover Spring Rain, are fairly likeable, though they do not have much power to shape their own stories.  I was a little frustrated by the slow pace, by how the main characters seemed to be limited to observing major events, and by several repeated phrases or situations.  While I appreciated the overall story after completing the novel, I did not always enjoy the process of reading it.  I think Under Heaven is a book that is easier to appreciate when viewed as a forest, rather than as a sum of its individual trees.

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