Monday, May 10, 2010

Under Heaven - Guy Gavriel Kay

Under Heaven
Guy Gavriel Kay
ROC Hardcover
Copyright: April 2010
ISBN: 978-0451463302

The product description:
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.

Inspired by the glory and power of Tang dynasty China, Guy Gavriel Kay has created a masterpiece.

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...
I've not really read much of Guy Gavriel Kay's work before, or much fantasy set in China, so when I saw this book I thought it was definitely worth a try. And, it most certainly was. Kay has done a wonderful job setting the scene and evoking the characters.

Perhaps it's not the most 'active' book around, but there is quite a bit going on in the story. For one thing, I couldn't figure out who were the "good guys" and who were the "bad guys" until right at the end of the book, things just kept twisting back to make it seem like any of the possibilities fit. The culture is a very 'political' one at the level the book is set in, plenty of ambition and double-crossing going on. Everyone wants an advantage for themselves or their family.

At the same time, things are very strict in some ways, such as the requirement for poetry from anyone in the civil service. It's clear that there are some very longstanding traditions that have become absolute requirements. That need for people to be able to express themselves in poetry following some very rigorous standards shows itself in the text of the book in many ways, ranging from entire poems to quotes of a line or so. Not to mention that the prose of the book had an extra dimension of 'awareness'. Not the best word, I'll admit, but I can't think of one better.

The prose of Under Heaven reminded me strongly of the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien, especially The Silmarillion. Not too surprising, I suppose, as Guy Gavriel Kay helped Christopher Tolkien edit that book after the death of J.R.R Tolkien. It just felt like there was an extra element of care in the word choices he made while writing the thing.

One thing I didn't like about the book is the way some of the viewpoint characters were written in present tense, but all of the rest were written in the more normal past tense. I know quite a few authors do it, including L.E. Modesitt, but it's something I really don't like in any of them. Especially when I can't figure out an overall reason for it, such as to differentiate the villains from the others.

Overall though, this was a really good book and one I'll happily recommend to people.

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