Guy Gavriel Kay
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In many ways, there is nobody writing novels in the same genre as Guy Gavriel Kay, and his publication by a fantasy publisher may be considered a mere aberration or historical relic. While his early novels, such as Tigana or The Fionavar Tapestry are clearly fantasy, his more recent novels stray perilously close to the realm of historical fiction, although they never quite cross that divide. In Under Heaven, Kay has taken events from the Tang Dynasty China (618-907) and uses them as the backdrop for the story of Shen Tai and his family.
Following his father's death, Shen Tai has voluntarily removed himself from society to bury the remains of two armies at distant Kuala Nor. During those years, Tai's only contact is with the Kitai army, which brings him supplies, and the barbarian Taguran army, which also brings him food and necessities. Both sides honor Tai's self-imposed task. As the two year mourning period comes to an end, Tai is surprised to learn that his activities have received attention throughout the Kitai Empire and the Taguran steppes. At the same time as he learns how honored he is, Tai is also pulled back into the intrigue of the Kitai Imperial court.
Kay has taken an interesting angle on the events in Under Heaven. Although there is plenty of military strife, with enemies of the Kitai Empire both internal and external, he has elected to focus his story on Shen Tai's own role, not necessarily minor, but not earth-shattering. Shen Tai is brought into contact with many of the movers and shakers, either because of his own activities in Kuala Nor or his connections with his father or brother. The resulting novel is much more intimate than if Kay had focused on the major events of the world he has created. Nevertheless, by shifting between Shen Tai and his sister, Li-Mei, Kay is able to look at different parts of his world and present the world as seen by very different people.
One of the advantages for Kay in creating a world which is based on an historical milieu without actually being an historical novel is that he needed adhere to what actually happened. His Kitai court is similar to the Tang Dynasty, but he can introduce differences in timing, character, and culture to make his story work. Similarly, when he does introduce fantastic elements, such as the ghosts of Kuala Nor or the wolves of the Bogü Steppe, the reader can never be entirely sure if the supernatural element is real or a product of the characters' own superstitions.
From his starting point in Tang Dynasty China and the An Shi Rebellion, Kay has built a complex and fully realized world which incorporates just a hint of magic. His story about Shen Tai and his family, which often touches the wider story of this world, is satisfying with strong and likable characters whom the reader wants to learn more about. When things don't go quite their way, the reader feels their pain, as well as their joy at triumphs and discoveries. Under Heaven ends too early, giving the feeling that there is still more to be told of both Shen Tai's life and the results of the actions of the Emperor, his generals, and courtiers.
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