As you know, I am a sucker for interesting and engaging historical fiction. Thus, what a nice surprise for me to discover Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven. In this lovely novel that hovers between real history and fiction, between reality and fantasy, is a wonderfully turned story told against the context of a fictional Chinese Tang Dynasty (roughly the 600s through 800s C.E.), the land of Kitai.
Now, of course, I am no expert on the Tang Dynasty, nor on China, so I am probably going to be inaccurate in my assessments of the details of politics, history, and major events...but really, no matter. The mark of a engaging piece of history or fiction is the ability to transport the reader fully into the world being described -- assembling the details in such a manner as to suggest completeness and comprehension. Mary Renault did it with her fabulous fictions regarding ancient Greece. Barbara Tuchman did it with the real history of the 14th century in A Distant Mirror and yes, J.R.R. Tolkein did it with The Lord of the Rings, as did Frank Herbert with Dune. Ken Follet did the history OK with Pillars of the Earth -- too bad the plot and the characters were so shallow and typecast.
Guy Kay does it right with Under Heaven - the history is fascinating, the details of the Chinese court intriguing (I could not resist the double entendre), and the major characters are well built and have real depth. Shen Tai has spent the traditional two years of mourning for his father buying the bones of soldiers on both sides of an epic battle - an homage to his father's military career. Hearing of his devotion, a Princess of the Chinese court married off to the "barbarians" in a political peacekeeping deal, sends him a gift -- 250 Sardian horses. Now, the story goes that the gift of one Sardian horse is an honor, five is a fortune and a guarantee of rank -- 250 is a gift worthy of an emperor. And this the the story unfolds....how can Shen Tai shoulder this gift and burden without getting himself killed and without wreaking political havoc. Oh, and yes, he must claim the gift in person and successfully return to his home.
So, off we go into the politics of ancient China - from warlords maneuvering for advantage to concubines manipulating events from behind the veil, Kay has created a set of characters all of whom play power politics - and the resulting collision is very believable. I particularly like Kay's treatment of, and exploration of, the role of women. Shen Tai hires a bodyguard following the assassination of a friend - and the bodyguard is a woman (incredibly skilled, confident, brave and dangerous). At the other end of the spectrum, his descriptions of how concubines develop and exercise power is compelling. Overall, the plot is complex, but entirely understandable. The fantasy introduced into this book is more spiritual than plot device and this means the actions and reactions of the characters ring very real.
This is the first Guy Gavriel Kay book I have read and am delighted to have happened upon a new author (for me). The fact that he is on his 9th or 10th book tells you how wired in I am not. Every time I think I can claim that I am "well read" -- I find something to put me in my place.
I really enjoyed this book - and quite frankly it is more fun to discover the authors not on the bestseller list and review those than it is to try to out review The Sunday New York Times Book Review. Pick Under Heaven up...and it will keep you up until you finish.