The novel is a gift from my daughter.
Under Heaven is a historical fantasy set in the Tang Dynasty of eighth-century China.
Remember the Tang horses? Their power and grace caught in clay? They are there. The distant thunder of their galloping hooves drives the novel's plot like the pounding beat of a racing heart.
Kay's occasional use of parentheses annoys me and when I begin one of his books, for the first few pages, the writer in me makes a few mental editorial criticisms--then I become lost in the sheer and simple beauty of his style and the adventure of his themes.
For my taste, Kay is one of the best living fantasy writers. Since he has won multiple awards, it seems my taste is shared.
As always, Kay's main characters have courage, both physical and moral. They have honour and decency; and no named character, however brief and minor on the pages, is insignificant to the total story.That is not to say his people lack human frailties or are one dimensional. They are not. But for this reason alone, I read Kay with a kind of relief. His characters reassure me.
In Under Heaven, Kay explores the concept of human choice. Specifically how a decision made by any person, whether they be a person of obvious influence or a peasant, whether the decision is made consciously or merely as a result of something in their nature -- to speak out or not, to take this path and not that one-- alters the future irrevocably, for all.
Choice is a dilemma of the human condition, whether we are the sort to perceive future consequences or the kind that examines them only in retrospect.
Inevitably, one of Kay's characters is always faced with some problem which often bedevils me personally. For example, that by the time I have learned the arbitrary rules of some sub-set of society-- the rules will have changed.
In that moment, Tai arrived at a decision. It seemed obvious enough, and it had the virtue of simplicity. He'd only needed to grasp something: that he would never be subtle enough to match those waiting for him. He didn't have time to know enough, or to gain awareness of relationships, at the level that would let him move with these men and women to their music. He wouldn't even hear the notes they heard...play the game of words spoken and unspoken with the court and the higher civil servants and even some of the govenors, in and around the Ta-Ming Palace and the emperor."
Another small and intimately coincidental thing: His novel begins with ghosts.
The ghosts were outside in all seasons, moonlight nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down.
He knew some of their voices now, the angry ones and the lost ones, and those in whose thin, stretched crying there was only pain.
As a matter of honour and filial duty, the protagonist Tai has spent the last two years in a remote valley of the Empire burying the bones of the countless dead, of soldiers, Barbarian and Empire alike.
And, of course, this simple act of respect has enormous consequences.