The fellow who run’s Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist maintains this might be the best fantasy novel to be released this year. I’m going to hold out for a better one.
Like many Guy Gavriel-Kay novels Under Heaven resists a simple summary. It is the story of Shen Tai. It is also the story of his family, friends and lovers. It is a story of poets and how they can change the world.
Shen Tai has chosen to devote the mourning period (2+ years) for his father to performing an unparalleled act of charity and labour. Although isolated, the world takes note of his act and acknowledges it. Much of the plot follows from this acknowledgment (although there are other threads), but all he character relationships spring from the fact that Shen Tai is the type of person who might deserve such acknowledgment.
Gavriel-Kay writes historical fantasy. This tale is set at the height of that Tang dynasty. The details seem authentic. But the story is always about the people and the details do not overwhelm them. The fantastical aspects, ghosts and fox-women and shamans, seems more prominent than in many recent Gavriel-Kay books, but moves out of the foreground in the later half of the tale as the history and characters take the centre stage.
One common aspect of Gavriel-Kay’s books is the prominence he gives to troubadours, poets and mosaicists. This is again showcased in Under Heaven through the character of the Banished Immortal and Shen’s actions themselves often seem to embody a form of poetry. I would feel over whelmed writing the words of the most renowned poet of an age, but Gavriel-Kay does it with aplomb.
Another aspect is the brilliance of Gavriel-Kay’s characters. They often make bad decisions motivated by fear, greed and cruelty, but no character ever makes a stupid choice. This story highlight’s how the women of this era, although having no social standing, can influence and guide the forces of history and how everyone can be caught up and swept forward by those same forces.
Gavriel-Kay also always has at least one transcendental moment in his books. A time when history, character and choices rise up and, for a time, the entire world seems to revolve around the one scene. When every word is potent and every silence is thunderous. Under Heaven has such a scene. That may be my biggest disappointment in this novel – there is only one such scene instead of two or three.
I have a couple of other nit picks. The middle of the novel seems to shift away from the characters for a while to setup the history. The balance of exposition to character seems to shift the wrong way which I find is unusual for Gavriel-Kay. And the denouement for several of the characters seemed lacking – although for two of them it was pitch perfect.
I finished the book in three days. It would have been less, but I was tense over the job on Thursday and Friday. 🙂 The writing was, I find, exquisite. While this isn’t my favorite of Gavriel-Kay’s novels, the writing becomes more sure and beautiful with every book. Should I recommend my favorite of his books (Tigana) or the later ones that show him at the height of his craft (Under Heaven, The Sarantine Mosaic)? I think this makes an excellent introduction to his work. And if you like it, you can go back to his earlier works. There are many, many worth reading. (many, many = 7 and 3 more if you are a real fan).
Gavriel-Kay is one of my favorite authors, but I think some of my other favorite authors might yet to better this year. And China Mielville has a book coming out in the summer. I may even find a new favorite author for the list as well. If this is the high-water mark for my fantasy fiction reads this year, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing either.