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Book Review: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

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The art of storytelling is difficult enough as it is, but when an author attempts to recreate a culture, any culture, be it based on reality or imagined, he or she has set for themselves a task equivalent to scaling the highest of peaks. It's not enough to simply offer descriptions; the characters have to live and breath every nuance of the world created for them in order for it to come to life. Otherwise you end up with vessels moving in front of a pretty background like shadow puppets in a panorama. Everything from the way a character thinks to the way they hold themselves must be as carefully considered as any plot twist if an author is to have any hope of being convincing.

Guy Gavriel Kay has carved his own niche in the world of fiction through his ability to not only accomplish the above, but successfully meld it with historical fiction and fantasy. From the Byzantine Empire, to Medieval France, to Ottoman Spain, to Renaissance Italy, the pages of his books have exuded the colours and textures of historical eras with elegance and verisimilitude. The kings, peasants, warriors, and courtesans who wander through the market places, courts, and battlefields where his stories unfold not only dress and act appropriately to their environment and status within it, the poetry they recite, the duels they fight, and the attitudes they strike are equally at harmony with the world they live in.

While his attention to detail would put a documentarian to shame, remarkably the reader never notices. Everything is so subtly integrated into the overall telling of the story, it's only upon reflection that you realize the amount of work that has gone into to the making of what you've just read. It's like the sudden realization when looking at a painting that has so accurately captured a person in time that thousands of brush strokes have gone into its making; you don't want to see them, but knowing they exist make you appreciate the work all the more. One need look no further than his new release, Under Heaven, being published by Penguin Canada April 3, 2010 (April 27 in America), to see this in action.

Inspired by the Tang Dynasty of eighth-century China, Under Heaven is set in the fictional kingdom of Kitai and follows the fortunes of the second son of a general in the imperial army. Twenty years prior Shen Tai's father had led imperial troops into their last great battle with the neighbouring Tagur kingdom. Beside a remote lake bordering both kingdoms, 40,000 men of both kingdoms lost their lives. When his father dies Shen Tai takes it upon himself to spend the official two-year mourning period in a hut beside the lake burying the bones of as many of those who died there as possible. Without regard to rank or nationality he has spent nearly two years at his self-appointed task with his only contact with the outside world being visits from soldiers of both empires' nearest forts who bring him supplies.

While Tai had been only the second son a general, one of many young men studying to pass the exams that would allow them admittance to the lowest level of the court's civil service prior to his father's death, his actions by the lake have not gone unnoticed. It's on one of the re-supply visits from the Tagur soldiers that he first becomes aware of the enormity of what he's done when the Captain accompanying the soldiers gives him a letter stating he has been gifted with 250 of the most magnificent horses in the world.

While he's till reeling from the news that he now owns horses whose worth will either make his fortune or, if he doesn't handle matters just right, result in his death, he just as unexpectedly receives a visitor. Here, beyond the final outpost of the empire, he never expected to receive visits, yet a fellow student, accompanied only by one guard, deemed it so important he receive the news he carries that he's traveled across the land's breadth to tell him. It's a message he never delivers, as the guard turns out to be an assassin hired to ensure Shen Tai doesn't return to the capital. Although his friend dies, Tai miraculously survives the attempt on his life, and with the aid of the Tagur Captain concocts a plan that will not only see him survive the journey back through the empire, but ensure the safe delivery of the magnificent horses.

As we make the long journey back to civilization with Tai, we learn that he's not quite the unimpressive figure we might have thought at first. Not only has he served as an officer in the Imperial army, he had also studied for a time with warrior monks who are known not only for their martial prowess but their trustworthiness. While he may not have completed his training with the order, he still possesses some of their skills with weapons, which comes in handy as the assassination attempts weren't finished with that first one. However, by the time he reaches the capital city, and word has traveled ahead of him of the present he has been given by their former enemies, he might find himself remembering the assassination attempts with fondness. At least he could see where the danger lay in them and defend himself. The Emperor's court on the other hand is a seething mass of plots and intrigues, most of which seem to be primarily centred around the newly appointed prime minister, his senior advisor, the prime minister's cousin, who also happens to be the Emperor's favoured concubine, and the most powerful military governor in the country.

Trying to weave one's way through these webs of intrigue takes an amount of skill that would try most men at the best of times. Having to do this while attempting to find out who among the powerful wanted you killed, figure out what to do with 250 horses whom everybody covets, and deal with the fact your eldest brother – the aforementioned advisor to the prime minister – has pretty much sold your sister into slavery by having her sent off to be the bride of tribal chief's son, is a seemingly impossible task. On top of this it seems that the machinations of the prime minister are about to send the country into a bloody civil war that could very well see the end of the current dynasty and result in millions of deaths. With war brewing, 250 of the finest horses, faster and stronger than any to be found in the kingdom, are all of a sudden even more key to the empire's future.

Kay has never shied away from showing the steel that lies beneath the beauty on his pages and the ugly truth behind the romantic images of finely dressed nobility. In Under Heaven he not only manages to convey the nearly sublime beauty of the empire, but the brutal reality of what it takes for a small ruling class to keep millions to heel. The same man who can wax eloquent about the beauty of a flower will think nothing of giving an order that will see thousands die or have a servant beaten nearly to death because his wine was not the right temperature. For all its sumptuous beauty, we are never allowed to forget the harsh truths of this empire and the iron fist required for its running.

The characters who populate the book's pages are as multi-layered, if not more so, than the society they live in. While we gradually learn about Tai, he is learning about those around him. What's interesting is how in some cases the more we learn about a character the less impressive he is. For all his vaunted intelligence the prime minister turns out to be more cruel than anything else. Everything about the characters, though, is consistent with the society they live in and the culture they belong to. From the way the women manage to manipulate events even though they are supposedly powerless in this society, to how servants take advantage of being beneath notice, all tell us a little bit more about the world they live in while making the picture Kay has created that much more believable.

Guy Gavriel Kay has the ability to bring worlds and people alive on the page in a way that few authors today seem capable of. Although he uses the same repertoire as other authors — characterization, plot, atmosphere, etc. — somehow they are employed in such a manner that we're not aware of them as individual components. Like dancers and music they move together in such harmony we can enjoy the image they create without noticing the steps taken to bring it about. In Under Heaven he not only reaffirms his reputation as a storyteller par excellence, but as a master of bringing people and cultures alive. This is a magnificent creation that you will want to read over and over again for the joy of reading it brings you.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site He has been writing for since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.