It always seems such a long time between Guy Gavriel Kay novels. Nobody else measures up when it comes to writing fantasy. And when it turns out I’ve enjoyed his last few slightly less than his earlier works (Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan are my favourite GGK books; The Last Light of the Sun and Ysabel were both a bit disappointing to me), I have that crushing weight of expectation topped with the burden of fearing that maybe Kay is taking a different direction in his writing and I’m not going to love his next book as much.
To put it simply, Under Heaven had a lot to live up to, in my mind.
To put it even more simply, it totally lived up to expectations. And then some.
As with most of his recent novels, Kay has once again added fantasy touches to a world that’s essentially based on a real historical place and time. In this case, the country in Under Heaven — Kitai — is closely modelled on eighth-century China. Writing fantasy with a historical basis allows him to use lots of material from that real place and time without having to stick slavishly to “what really happened” — and also allows him to insert nifty fantasy details like a character who shares his soul with a wolf due to a botched shamanic spell, or a near-fatal attack on a main character that’s averted by the timely intervention of ghosts.
At the heart of the story though, are the things that keep bringing Kay fans like me back, book after book. Rich, well-developed characters who are never simple or one-dimensional, and tight, intricate plotting where a casual detail mentioned early in the book turns out to play a crucial role 300 pages later. Interweaving storylines influence each other in a pattern so complex you can’t even grasp it until you finish the book and stand back a little.
The central character here is Tai, a young man who makes the but life-changing decision to spend the two-year mourning period after his father’s death, not at his family home but in a remote mountain pass, burying the bones of soldiers who died in battle there twenty years earlier. As a token of gratitude for this service, he is given a gift so impossibly generous that it transforms him from relative obscurity to a man who has to learn to manuever his way through the shifting loyalties and power politics of a complicated and dangerous court — in a world on the brink of change.
Tai, his friends, his lovers, his enemies, all come so vividly to life here that I was actually left feeling lonely and bereft when the book ended. Due to having a busy week, I’d been able to make a long book last several days instead of swallowing it in a couple of marathon reading sessions. I felt I’d been living in Tai’s world, among his people, for a week, and suddenly the book closed, leaving them to go on without me and me to go on alone. I don’t think there’s a higher tribute you can pay to a book.