After the death of his father, a general of Kitai’s army, second son Shen Tai retreats from the empire’s dazzling capital of Xinan to spend the ritual period of mourning with 40,000 ghosts. In the breathtaking valley of Kuala Nor, near the border of Kitai and Tagur, the empire with which Kitai has established a truce, Tai spends two years alone, burying soldiers of both empires, a task beyond the power of any one man. His simple solitude is broken, however, by disruptions from both West and East: from Tagur, a decree that its court has chosen to reward his effort with the incomprehensibly generous gift of 250 purebred ‘Heavenly Horses”; and from Kitai, the arrival of a message-bearing friend. Both compel Tai to end his solitude and return to Xinan. But as a man now unique in all the empire, marked by his time at Kuala Nor and the value of the coveted horses, Tai will find that all of his education and courage, and the guidance of friends old and new, may not be enough to preserve his life, or the empire itself, as the ambitions and flaws of its citizens collide under heaven.
Under Heaven (Roc/Penguin, hardcover, 567 pages, $26.95 cover price) is the latest stand-alone novel by award-winning Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. For those familiar with Kay’s work, little more need be said. Under Heaven is vintage Guy Gavriel Kay, another elegant, captivating work by a master at the height of his powers. For those unfamiliar with the author’s method, some background: Guy Gavriel Kay begins creating a novel by focusing on a particular time and place. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, it was reconquest-era Spain, and in A Song for Arbonne, the France of the troubadours. Here, it is China during the Tang Dynasty of the 8th century. Guy Gavriel Kay then researches the setting meticulously, distills its flavor and essence, and transfers them into an alternate, often magical world, thereby freeing them from the limitations of history and what we believe to be impossible. The result is sweeping, intoxicating storytelling at its finest.
Although Guy Gavriel Kay’s work is often called ‘historical fantasy’, make no mistake: the presence of magic is rare, but all the more magical because of that rarity. At the same time, Kay’s increasingly spare but lyrical prose, and his nuanced insights into character and situation, excel at revealing that lives, relationships, and stories are themselves abundantly magical. In a Kay novel, and Under Heaven is no exception, a reader will find elements of family, religion, politics, war, sex, death, and poetry, interwoven into a vivid tapestry that will engage both mind and heart. Moreover — and in this way Kay’s work separates itself from much commercial fantasy and historical fiction and earns the distinction of ‘literature’ — the tapestry is never presented as a complete or completely known composition, but rather as one encompassing both the shadows of the past (in Under Heaven, the legacies of Tai’s father and the former prime minister) and the misted veil of the future. It is inaccurate to say that Guy Gavriel Kay’s work offers unequivocally happy endings, but they are, nonetheless, unequivocally satisfying. (The last line of Tigana, for example, is still the most vague, wondrous, and memorable last line of any fantasy novel I’ve read — but it only achieves its full impact if you’ve read the entire book, so take care not to spoil it for yourself.)
I highly recommend Under Heaven for readers familiar with Guy Gavriel Kay’s work or anyone who enjoys historical, fantasy, or literary fiction. It’s simply a beautiful and epic tale. The only readers who may not enjoy it as much are those who prefer action-oriented page-turners, who grow frustrated by extreme subtlety or nuance in dialogue or circumstance, or who demand closure and explanation for every plot thread in a tale. This is a novel to savor outside on a gorgeous day, by lamplight with a glass of wine, or in any other place in which the distance between past and present, between this world and the world of legends, diminishes to the thinness of a page.
If the current field of fantasy literature were imagined as a sprawling chateau, with the largest spaces being the armor-crowded trophy room of medieval fantasy and the strobe-lit, vampire-haunted ballroom of urban fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay’s works would form a niche — a quiet, starlit courtyard brightened by blossoms and faint music, a enchanted sanctuary which, once found, is never forgotten.