Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Under Heaven--A Review

The cover of Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, published by Viking Canada (the Penguin Group) 2010, 567 pages, ISBN 978-0-670-06809-8.
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.

To illustrate:

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 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.


laughingwolf said...

i agree, ggk is a master...

good your daughter gave you a great tale to read, inspiring too :)

writtenwyrdd said...

I adore the Fionavar Tapestry series. Arthurian and great writing is full of win.

I've only read Tigana besides those three books, but I saw this one and put it on the wish list.

raine said...

Have never read Kay, will certainly look into it.
Beautiful cover.

Bernita said...

She's like that, LW, and she knows how much I admire Kay.

I love the Tapestry too, Written. Another I would recommend( highly) is "A Song for Arbonne."

writtenwyrdd said...

I may have read that one, too. It would have been when it first came out, and that far back I could have forgotten reading it. But is sounds really familiar.

Bernita said...

Raine, if you've never read him, you might try the library first to see if he is to your taste.
He's covered a lot of themes, eras and continents - here China and the Tang dynasty, but he'd done the Viking age, Byzantium, etc.etc.

Bernita said...

Probably my favourite next to the Tapestry, Written.

Charles Gramlich said...

I feel uneeducated now since I've not read any of his work. So many books so little time indeed.

laughingwolf said...

furgot... neat countdown calendar!

always good when children remember their parents' likes/dislikes, regardless of ages involved :)

Bernita said...

Charles, I snort at the idea of you being uneducated!
But I think you'd like him. He does heroic well.

Widget provided by Carina, LW.
We talk a lot, and often about books.

laughingwolf said...

sometimes a 'safe' subject, books! :O lol

Bernita said...

LW, there are damn few subjects the kids and I don't discuss!

laughingwolf said...

as it should be, bernita :D

bookfraud said...

terrific review, bernita, and i loved how you looked at the themes rather than the surface elements (i.e., "this happened, then that happened...").

whether the decision is made consciously or merely as a result of something in their nature

what writers have been asking forever and never answering definitively, eh?

Bernita said...

Thank you, Book!

All actions have consequences. Sometimes we prefer to ignore them.

Anonymous said...

I like the language you shared. The ghost sentence really wraps around you and takes hold.

Bernita said...

That's exactly it, Jason!
Simple and evocative.
And his respect for the dead saved the Dynasty and himself.

Gabriele C. said...

Another Kay fan here. :)

The blurb for that book immediately evoked another scene for me: Germanicus (and his army) burying the remains of the dead soldiers of the Varus battle six years later. As member of the Imperial family and high priest, Germanicus wasn't supposed to be near anything that had to do with death, and he was later blamed for personally overseeing the burials and conducting funeral rites. But Germanicus wasn't the sort of person who followed rules. ;)

Bernita said...

Eh, Gabriele, Tai isn't either!

Gabriele C. said...

Oh, I know that, but still his acts are considered special, or he wouldn't get such a reward.

Lana Gramlich said...

I've never read Kay, but I have to admit, the first time I saw one of his books I was REALLY attracted to the cover. Yes, sometimes I DO read books for their covers. That's how I got into the whole Pern series years ago.

Bernita said...

As well as the acts of his sister and brother, Gabriele.

I have almost all of the Pern series, Lana! Insidious books.

Rick said...

GGK does a very interesting thing - apparently also in this book - with 'parallel' worlds, unabashedly evocative of real history. And mostly with very little conventional magic, both things I like.

But for some reason I stalled out - twice - on Lions of al-Rassan, and haven't tried his more recent books.

Bernita said...

Another of the things he does well, Rick.
"The Lions..." is my least favourite of all his books.
I found it easy to stall-out also.
"Th Sarantine Mosaic" ( 2 vol.- Byzantium) however, works for me -but then I've always liked Theodora.

Rick said...

Maybe I should give Sarantium a try!