Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay is a book that I have picked up and put back down in bookshops more time than I can count. I love the idea of Chinese based fantasy and the premise of the book promised adventure and intrigue that seemed to fit perfectly for the setting. Still, I seemed to always find something I wanted to read more and it wasn’t until recently that I remembered to give it a go.
I’ve heard plenty of good things about Kay and heard him referred to as a ‘modern classic’ writer and I must admit, expected a grand tale full of beautiful landscapes and a rich world ready to swallow the reader whole. What I found in Under Heaven, however, couldn’t have been further removed from that.
The story starts with Shen Tai, son of the late General Lao finishing his two year mourning period which he decided to spend burying the dead at an old battlefield. There is a slowness to the start that I actually found appealing to a certain degree: Shen is alone and Kay gets that feeling across very efficiently through the inner monologue of the character who is looking back on all he has done and all he will going back to. Whilst still there, Shen is given a gift: 250 Sardian horses. That gift is beyond anything any man, even the Emperor, could have even dreamt of receiving. It’s also a present that would surely cost him his life quickly if not for the one condition that he must receive the horses in person.
Within the same day, an old friend of his arrives at his cabin, having traveled a very long way to deliver him news. But before Shen can find out what his friend wanted to tell him, he is assassinated and Shen himself is lucky to survive the assassin sent to take his life. But how could the hand behind the assassin have known about the horses? Or does this have to do with something else entirely?
From the get go, Under Heaven promises intrigue and adventure and it is painfully disappointing that it does not deliver. The greatest part of the book is taken by Shen Tai’s return to the capital, but little happens on the way. Insist we get Shen’s repetitive monologue and thoughts about his brother, the news he has been given about his sister, and the man who has stolen from him the girl he was in love with. And when we, finally, reach the capital, the expected intrigue isn’t there. Shen is nothing more than a pawn in the hands of the only person who seems to know what they’re doing whilst everybody else blunders around. When it has been made a point that it is hard to be in service of the emperor, it is surprising to find that of the people who surround him, the only one who seems capable of intrigue, calculating manoeuvres, and of generally playing the game of politics well is his concubine. The prime minister is ruled by his fears, whereas Shen’s brother only seems to be interested in making his family prosper.
It was disappointing how all the characters at court were so obviously transparent with an obvious ‘good’ and ‘bad’ divide the line in between Kay never really bothers to blur. Most of the characters seemed very one dimensional, especially surrounding Shen and it was very hard to actually get attached or care what happened to anyone. Shen’s sister, Li Mei, has a far more interesting POV: made an imperial princess, she is shipped off to marry a barbarian in the name of peace only to be saved by a half man half creature that her brother spared the life of years before.
Her relationship with Meshag is actually one of the most interesting one of the book as it moves from hate and fear, to respect, to a strange friendship and perhaps the first hints of what could have been a romantic attachment. Li Mei seemed a far more complex person than her brothers, strong in ways I don’t see often in female characters, because she was strong within the role the society gave her without stepping outside of it. Much like the imperial consort, Li Mei knows that she can have strength and do more than it seems from within her position.
But overall not a great deal happened for about three quarters of the book until suddenly everything came to a head and exploded in every direction: but that this point, as a reader, I didn’t feel really connected to any of the characters, and the way Kay handled the start of the rebellion made the book feel more like a history book than a novel. And that’s a truth throughout the book: Kay info dumps at all too regular intervals within the story, swapping to random POVs for such occasions before abandoning the insignificant characters to never be seen again. It is obvious he wanted to bring his fantasy China to life, but instead long paragraphs of needless and irrelevant information bore at several points and the world itself remain flat and devoid of life.
Characters wear ‘silk’ or ‘robes’ and nothing is ever described bar the material itself. It’s almost as though he was afraid to invest in the names of the garments his characters are wearing, calling them by their proper names, and instead deciding to go for the vague descriptions of material and colour over shapes. The world feels clad in much of the same vagueness despite the lengthy descriptions of the places and customs.
But at least Kay nailed the ending, and the epilogue made for a very satisfying end to the story. It’s unfortunate to say but it seems that he remembered how to do characterisation in the last few chapters, bringing to life effortlessly a relationship hardly worked on throughout the rest of the book and, more importantly, making me feel happy for the involved characters. An echo of what the beginning promised, the end is what pulled this book from a two stars to a three stars, and although the book isn’t something I would exactly recommend, neither would I tell people not to bother, as long as they were aware of what kind of book this is!