Monday, November 21, 2011

Book review: "Under Heaven" by Guy Gavriel Kay

I haven't read Guy Gavriel Kay for several years now, since I singed out of library. Before, I used to re-read one of his books every few months, resulting in reading his opus (6 books in library) every couple of years. You can say that he is one of my favorite writers, although I don't count him in Big n (n being 3, 5 or some similar number of favorite writers) for simple reason of him not writing long epic series. He recently (last year) published another of his novels (he published some urban fantasy novel and a collection of poetry, but I don't like urban fantasy and can't read poetry, so I don't count them) and I was somewhat unsatisfied because buying it didn't fit in my schedule. But my local bookstore has a promotional month(s) when you get three books for two, so I decided to treat myself with this.

Although Kay dislikes branding of his books as "historical fantasy", I don't know how else this should be labeled. I allow that it is mostly historical fiction, but there is a touch of fantasy and for me this is a definition of historical fantasy. This is true for this "Under Heaven", too. Actually, "Under Heaven" is a typical Kay book. We have a historical setting and real historic event as theme (An Shi Rebellion, which I didn't know first thing about). We have larger-than-life characters (most of them male, but females are in no way withhold), with unreal levels of honor, cunning and passion that feel real nevertheless. We have a meandering story, with lots of jumps in time and space, short POVs from characters that will never be seen again, changes between POV and narration types. And at last, we have a main character who is a smart and able guy, suddenly finding himself in highest circles (royalty) where he feels inadequate, but actually acts marvelously and then ends removed from important events and future.

In "Under Heaven" this is Shen Tai, second son of famous, now passed away, General Shen Gao. Since their customs obligate sons to mourn their father for two years (except if they are members of army), Shen has chosen something unorthodox (but not forbidden): to spend next two years in isolation, burying the bones of soldiers fallen at Kuala Nor (site of many battles between Kitai and Tagur). Shen's intentions were sincere and innocent, but his actions have now attracted the attention of royalty: one of wives of Taguran Emperor, daughter of Emperor of Kitai, has given him an extravagant gift of 200 Sardian horses (equivalent of Bill Gates giving you 100 million dollars - not big money for him, but you are suddenly in everyone's focus). Now Tai has to find a way of dealing with horses without shaming his family or offending the Emperor or anybody powerful, avoiding machinations of his ambitious brother and enmity of First Minister (whose newest concubine was once Tai's favorite courtesan) - all this in rigid and custom-obsessed society on a brink of rebellion... Of course, this is not all, but if this is not enough to attract you, nothing more will.

As I said, this is a typical book for Kay. We are following one important, but not the most important, character during turbulent times, based on some historical epoch. In this case this is 8th century China: not my favorite history topic, nor one I know much about. Since I don't know much about it, I have to trust that Kay was not making all this up; based on his previous book, I think the setting was truthful as much as possible. The same cannot be said for his characters: they are always too ideal, whether as good or as bad guys. But this make them fun to read about. His storytelling is also specific: a chapter starts with present events, then we a transfer to completely (seemingly) irrelevant time or POV and then this two lines connect. But he does it so good that it feels natural and simple.

About this book particularly: I liked most of the book, but ending was a bit rushed. His books are not usually overly long (relatively), but I think this was a shorter one (560 pages). He does a great beginning: introduction to setting and characters, acceleration of main plot. But then things end too fast. I can't say that ending is unsatisfactory or doesn't feel closed, but I think a hundred more pages of plot development would be a bad thing.

As those who have read his previous books, there are always some fantastic elements present there that don't make much worldwide impact (except in "Tigana"), but make a tremendous personal impact of main characters. It is also present here, and I must say I was surprised how direct it was.

Different people like different Kay's books. My favorite book is "The Lions of Al-Rassan", while I find his most ambitious work to be "The Sarantine Mosaic", and I also adore "Tigana". I less like "A Song for Arbonne" and "The Last Light of the Sun". For some people is the other way around. I found "Under Heaven" better than these last two, but not good as my favorite. Kay's fans will notice that I didn't mention "Fionavar Tapestry": I read only the first one ("The Summer Tree") and I hated it - I really don't connect this book to Kay.

Nonetheless, I would recommend "Under Heaven" to every Kay's fan or anybody who like historical fantasy or is a sucker for romance. Realistic setting, great characters and enjoyable plot make this a very good read!

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