I want this review to come across as professional and aloof. It will not for two reasons: (1) I just finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest masterpiece Under Heaven and my heart is beating out of my chest, and (2) I cannot stay calm and academically aloof as all book reviewers should when faced with what amounts to one of the best works of fiction I have ever read. This is not an exaggeration, in this moment it seems true. It may be that I will look back on this review and deem it the result of a feverish mind… or not.
Simply put, this novel is moving. I have come to expect a lot from the author of such game-changing epic fantasies as Tigana and The Fionavar Tapestry but Under Heaven surpasses every expectation. A few examples before I proceed to random gushing.
The Female Characters: Kay has a great talent for crafting believable, heroic, flawed, and generally marvelous characters to populate his worlds. Most notably, he has created 9 books or series without repeating himself. The female characters are no exception and, as such, are a rarity in the fantasy genre. Some works feature well-crafted and multi-dimensional men (e.g. David Gemmell‘s Troy Series) and some feature equally impressive women (e.g. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon) but fewer still manage to include both. The primary female characters of Under Heaven – Wen Jian, the Emperor’s Consort; Li-Mei, the protagonist’s sister; Spring Rain, the first-minister’s courtesan; and Wei Song, a warrior/ninja? – are all nuanced, sympathetic, interesting, and fully believable. This is no small task and I applaud Kay for it.
The Pacing: As cliché as it may sound, pacing is entirely a matter of preference. Some authors tear through a story, catching you up in a whirlwind of excitement (David Gemmell is again a good example of this) while others are more slowly paced, taking time to craft a complex world and explore its every corner (the obvious example being Tolkein‘s work). Under Heaven strikes a fine balance between these two styles, offering a smooth transition between the classic epic style of the first three “Parts” and the faster – perhaps more modern – style of the last. Breaking the novel into four parts of roughly equal lengths is a nice way to convey the passage of time and to give the reader space to reflect on events occurring in the last section. In some sense these sections feel like four different books; all of which would leave the reader desperate for the next installment and all of which draw the reader deeper into the story. The one section that I got hung up on was the epilogue which was both essential to those needing closure (myself very much included, I hate it when things get canceled mid-season… *coughFireflycough*) and yet somehow tangential to the story. You do not need to read it but if you do… you may find yourself clinging to the edge of your seat… though this may only be the case for hopeless romantics who cannot bear to see truly unhappy endings.
The ‘verse: I have spoken in previous reviews of my love of well-constructed and compelling fantasy worlds. Again, Kay does not disappoint. Under Heaven is set in a fictionalized Tang Dynasty China and draws heavily upon history and legend in forming the cities and states in which its characters live. As funny as it is to say this of a fictional work, I learned a LOT about history while reading the book. Occasionally I would browse the web (read: wikipedia) to find out if such things as the Heavenly Horses and purposefully obtuse Civil Service Exams actually existed… they did. Guy Gavriel Kay did his homework. This impresses me but really isn’t the point. To craft a world foreign to your own (Kay is Canadian…Yay!) is hard enough, to build that world from the stones of a real civilization is harder still, to draw the reader compellingly into a previously undiscovered history is hardest yet. I remain humbled by how aptly Kay moves between ages, places, and cultures in his works. I genuinely believe that this is the mark of a true talent.
So gush I have. Needless to say, this book comes with my highest recommendation. It can be found in the Fantasy section of your local bookstore but it should not be written off as a fantasy novel (for those of you who may think fantasy is all barely clad women and fearsome dragons… not that there is anything wrong with that!). In 567 short pages (trust me when I say you will wish it never ended), Kay delivers the best of all these genres: war chronicle, heroic fantasy, epic, tragedy, drama, thriller, romance, history, folk tale, and more. I hope that you fall in love with the characters – as I did – and that you are transported to another world – as was I.
I leave you with a quotation from page 7 of my version of the book:
There were too many. It was beyond hope to ever finish this: it was a task for gods descending from the nine heavens, not for one man. But if you couldn’t do everything, did that mean you did nothing?
For two years now, Shen Tai had offered what passed for his answer to that, in memory of his father’s voice asking quietly for another cup of wine, watching large, slow goldfish and drifting flowers in the pond. (Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven)