Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday Review, 6/18/10

Guy Gavriel Kay - Under Heaven

Kay is one of my favorite authors.  It has been interesting watching his writing change from the more traditional fantasy settings in works like The Fionavar Tapestry and Tigana, where the world was lushly described, to more character driven works like A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of al-Rassan, and this book. The world in this book is presented in broad brush strokes, with only a few details suggesting the whole picture, not unlike traditional Chinese brush drawings. Since Arbonne, Kay has used fantasy infused versions of real world history - medieval France in Arbonne, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in al-Rassan, ancient Byzantium in the Sarantium duo, and ancient China in this current novel.  Here, China becomes the empire of Kitai, cultural and military center of its world, beset by barbarians and connected to Sardia (where the best horses come from) by the Silk Road.  This use of a somewhat familiar backdrop is a brilliant piece of writing craft, because it allows Kay to focus on his characters to the extent that he does.  This is not to suggest that Kay is careless with his background, because he isn't.  The research that has gone into all of his books is clearly evident.  Rather, the descriptions of the world provide grace-notes to the symphony that the characters represent.  In contrast to the background, the characters are fully realized, colourful, detailed, and vibrant.

Kay's novels explore themes of sacrifice, duty, friendship, and love, and this book is no different in that regard. Kay tells a story of a young man and an inconvenient gift in the form of a herd of Sardian horses.  He also tells a story of a reluctant princess, and a beautiful courtesan.  These stories are wound around each other, each building and supporting the others until they end in a complex climax which is not necessarily what you might expect.  All of this takes place against a backdrop of rebellion and dissent in the empire.

It seems odd to criticize an almost 500 page book for being incomplete, but there is an element of incompleteness here.  Although the trio of stories forms the core of the novel, Kay suggests that they are not the big story in the book - they are merely a footnote to the story of rebellion. This is an interesting conceit that could have been explored a little more. Further, early in the novel, Kay introduces a series of very minor characters who provide a different viewpoint on the action, but this stops after Part I of the book.  Through Part I, I found myself wondering "when is this minor character going to interact with the protagonist? What is their role in the bigger story?" until, towards the end of the section, I realized that they did not have a bigger role in the story - they existed to provide a small outside view. And then these outside views stopped, just as I was getting a handle on them, and I found I missed them later in the book.  Given the epilogue, where the idea that the matter of the novel which preceded was only a footnote to the great sweeping narrative of history, a series of smaller, sub-footnotes would have been nice.

Things I liked: Deep characters driving a complex story full of emotion and rich narrative. Things I didn't like: As fantastic and brilliant as the novel was, it could have been even more fantastic and brilliant.


  1. There was a lot of underlying history he was drawing from. I thought he could have brought this out a little more. I think he was portraying ancient China from a Eurasian viewpoint which is a little different.

  2. Yes, I liked the Sardian point of view from the slaves.