Review: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Reviewed by Liz Bourke

Review: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Reviewed by Liz Bourke

Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay. Penguin, March 2010, $34.00, ISBN 9780670068098.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.

“The ghosts were outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down.”

In any number of ways, it’s appropriate that this novel begins with ghosts, and with Shen Tai’s self-appointed task, during two years of mourning for his father, of laying to rest as many of the hundred thousand dead at Kuala Nor as he can. This is a book haunted by presences and absences, the memory and the potential of war, and the tension — both the contrast and the striking contiguities — between the borders of the Kitan Empire and its heart.

It’s also haunted by the horses. Two hundred and fifty of the famed Sardian horses, given to Tai by the princess Cheng-wen — whose marriage out of Kitai secured peace with the Tagurans — as reward for his piety. An unexpected gift, and one which brings as much danger as honour as Tai returns to his emperor’s perilous, glittering court at Xinan, to intrigue and conflict, “with whispers of shocking things and subtle things and finally, with music — back from Kuala Nor to the world.” [164]

The book is set between spaces, first in the person of Tai, whose liminal solitude at Kuala Nor at first seems simple but contains within it the seeds of later complexity, and later, when he returns to the centre around which the empire turns — Xinan, with its aging emperor, the brilliant consort Wen Jian, the first minister Wen Zhou and his advisor, Tai’s mandarin elder brother Liu, and the courtesan Summer Rain, whose position within Zhou’s household both endangers Tai’s life and saves it — in the person of his sister Li-Mei, sent to be a Kitan bride to a Bogu chief beyond the northern borders of empire.

Kay evokes, in his characteristically lyric economy of language, the polarity between centre and edge, between the virtues of civilisation — poetry, music, conversation, order — and the potential of intrigue, violence, brutality, chaos held — not always latent — within them, and how the beauty of the edges, wild, vast and Other as it is, holds this potential in equal measure.

The flowers on the tree have come and gone by then: beautiful for a little time, then falling. [454]

Kay is economical with his pacing, varying — to occasionally breath-taking effect — between intensity and quietude, calmness pregnant with complexities. In the characters of Shen Tai, Li-Mei, Sima Zian (the Banished Immortal, a poet and friend to Tai), and the cipher Kanlin Warrior Wei Song, among others, Kay gives us access to a world which is lush, well-drawn, brilliantly coloured, and — above all — complex.

That said, while Under Heaven is a fantastic book, people with vivid characters and rich in sensory impressions, I found its concluding pages — however full of bright images and bittersweet emotion — curiously unsatisfying. The story itself ended with a grace note: the epilogue, on the other hand, pointed out all the missed opportunities, indeterminate continuances, roads taken — or not — which make, in life and history, if not in fiction, the moment of grace a temporary illusion. Having read sufficient history to find this truth rather depressing, actually, your humble reviewer craves such temporary illusions in fiction.

But I can say, without reservation, that this is one of the best books I’ve read all year.

2 Responses to “Review: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Reviewed by Liz Bourke”

  1. Jbrink says:

    Holy em dashes. Otherwise, nice review.

  2. Adam says:

    A fine review of a really excellent book. I reviewed this book last July and came to many of the same conclusions. Kay’s subtlety – his light touch with body language and dialogue – is more in evidence in this novel than any of his earlier novels even. I found the denouement to be hurried, but mostly satisfying in its bittersweet beauty.

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