Did you ever have a craving for something? Something you know is going to be good, something that has never let you down, something that will scratch an itch that's been pestering you for a while? And then, when you finally get that want fulfilled, it's something of a letdown?
Wow, that's subtle, isn't it?
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite living writers, and one of the few that I will by hardback versions of as they come out. And for a couple of months, I have been craving some really strong writing, not just stuff that was "okay" or "it'll do." I wanted to be swept up in a book and consider skipping work in order to finish it, breathless until the last word went by. Usually Kay does that for me. And I'll admit right up front that such a load of expectations may easily have swayed my final opinion of his latest novel, Under Heaven. This newest book has all the right pieces and parts (flavors and spices) but it just does not come together as well as others of Kay's novels. This is not to say, by any means, that this is a bad book—heavens, no; Kay still takes his readers on a roller coaster of pseudo-historical fiction, with strong characters, tremendous interplay, and some of the most deft plotting I have ever read. Something was lacking this time around, and I find my craving not quite subsiding. The Pizza Rule—there's two kinds of pizza: good pizza and pizza that is still better than most any other food out there—may be in effect.
If you'll recall from previous reviews of Kay's work, Kay generally writes about historic periods in world history, transmuting them slightly to give them a light fantasy touch and then runs with them. In the past he has written about Medieval Italy, Moorish Spain, and the Byzantine Empire; this time around, Under Heaven takes us to the Tang Dynasty in China. As I think about it, it really isn't necessary to know the correlation between Kay's fictional worlds and their real-world counterparts; everything you need to know is somewhere within the Kay's storytelling. However, in a larger sense, it's fascinating how Kay can bring these vibrant and exciting periods, now dead in most of the minds of current readers, brilliantly to life.
The general movement of Kay's "historic" novels goes like this: introduce a character, then move along the web of that character's association with other characters, then begin to fill them all out with back story and interaction with each other, while at the same time, begin to build the setting for the crisis of the novel. It may sound formulaic, but Kay is fine craftsman in his development of characters and plot, such that the formula isn't really visible until you sit back and compare the progression with other of his works. Kay often introduces his main character in the middle of a smaller crisis, thus quickly revealing to the reader not just how this character appears, but also how he/she truly is. The effect is an almost instantaneous rapport and interest in what happens in the character's life. Under Heaven is no different: we meet Shen Tai, the second son of a powerful general of the Kitai Empire, in the midst of performing ritual mourning duties after the death of his father. Tai has chosen to go to a battlefield where his father had perhaps his greatest victory, over barbarians intent on invasion, and to live a fairly monastic life burying the remains of both his fallen countrymen and those of their enemy. Tai generally works alone on this task, accompanied only by the nightly voices of the ghosts of those he buried, angry and sad at the disposition of their remains.
But Tai's tremendous memorial service has not gone unrecognized in the two years he has been serving; the local garrison of the Kitai brings him supplies, as does the local garrison of the Tagurans, the foes of his father. And as the end of the period of mourning approaches, the Tagurans, led by a commander that Tai has begun to consider a friend, bring him news of the tremendous gift a princess of the Tagurans offers him in gratefulness for his actions: 250 of the greatest horses alive. While the Kitai have horses, mostly they are small and weak compared to the great Sardian horses that are prized throughout the continent, whose only analog on Earth would be Arabians. Not only is Tai immediately wealthy beyond his every imagining, such a gift makes him an immediate political power, one to invoke jealousy or admiration among the officials of Kitai. Which, in turn, makes him an immediate target, as that very night he has to thwart an attempt on his own life.
The rest of Under Heaven sets about describing the political and cultural climate that Tai must now enter into with his ridiculous gift, a process Kay accomplishes by introducing the reader to more and more individuals throughout the empire, making them real to the reader by making them full, and then offering their opinions and judgments on the world that Tai is returning to. And even as Kay describes it, that very world is trembling under various shifts going on around it, not the least of which is the potential arrival of 250 horses. The reader's attention is torn between what is happening to the empire whose rulers Tai is suddenly thrust among and the development of Tai, as he realizes his two years have dramatically changed him and the world he thought he wanted to be a part of.
I've said elsewhere that Kay is a masterful storyteller, tweaking the reader with humor and pathos with skill. Characters on whom Kay spends just a few pages are tragically killed, and the reader's heart breaks because we know them so very well in such a tiny space. And generally there is no predicting where the paths of the characters will end up, so the reader must hang on until the story is concluded. And so it goes in Under Heaven, as the novel rushes to moments of consequence to the Kital Empire. All the threads that Kay lays out so skillfully weave together in a tapestry, and the reader recognizes that even the trivial moments that Kay has described all lead to the crisis, and that as important as the crisis may be, it is made up of individuals who are people, with assets and faults that make them sometimes achingly human.
The weakness in Under Heaven is only noticeable by comparison. There is a crisis, and all the characters' lives are changed by it, but it doesn't carry nearly the emotional and dramatic force that similar crises in other novels have. Everything sets up for it, and Kay deploys the same strategies that have worked so effectively in other novels: foreshadowing and plot devices and turns of phrases that over his oeuvre have become laden with portent. And yet when the crisis happens here (and I apologize for clumsiness of trying not to give any spoilers away), the main character Tai, doesn't have nearly so much emotional resources tied into it and ends up being something more like a witness rather than a participant. Kay also talks about how future historians of the Kitai will view the crisis that we get to see firsthand, and all of their descriptions blunt the emotional effect of what we see, in part because the historians get it wrong. No doubt, however, that there is power in this crisis; the reader recognizes as the characters do that immense power and privilege do not excuse even emperors and their court from What Must Be. And therein lies something of the tragedy that undergirds Under Heaven. But through Kay's descriptions, it has become clear that a change must be made for the life of the Kitai Empire, so what happens is not nearly so much a shock, again, as other similar crises in other Kay novels.
It's still evocative, and again citing the Pizza Rule, it's still better than most of the fantasy published today. And I will more than likely read this book a number of times in my lifetime. It's just that, when asked, it will not be the first Kay book I would recommend. That said, I still do recommend it, especially to readers who want something more than the formulas that make up most of the current heroic fantasy. Some Kay is better than no Kay at all.