Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Review by Floresiensis
Before you begin reading this review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven I would like to make some things clear. I am a fan of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work but not to the point of sycophancy. Tigana was a wonderful book, amongst the best I read as a young adult and the two books that made up The Sarantine Mosaic I found similarly excellent. I enjoyed The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Fionavar Tapestry but not to the same extent as the two previously mentioned titles. The reason I say this is so that it puts this positive review of Under Heaven into perspective.
Under Heaven, inspired by the Tang Dynasty of Ancient China, is as beautiful and enriching a novel as you could possibly wish for. Kay is an expert storyteller, his writing style strong and fluid, his exposition always necessary and worked seamlessly into the narrative. He has successfully re-imagined Ancient China in the same accessible and absorbing way that he previously achieved with medieval France, Ottoman Spain and Renaissance Italy.
The first thing that draws you into the world that Kay has created is the synopsis on the back cover:
For two years Shen Tai has mourned his father, living like a hermit by a mountain lake where terrible battles have long been fought between the Kitai and the neighbouring Tagurans, including one for which his father - a great general - was honoured. But Tai's father never forgot the brutal slaughter involved. The bones of 100,000 soldiers still lie unburied by the lake and their wailing ghosts at night strike terror in the living, leaving the lake and meadow abandoned in its ring of mountains. To honour and redress his father's sorrow, Tai has journeyed west to the lake and has laboured, alone, to bury the dead of both empires.
It is such a simple gesture made by Shen Tai but one that readers will immediately identify with, much in the same way that it also resonates with the characters within the book itself. I would have been quite happy had the entire book stayed with Shen Tai by the lakes of Kuala Nor, burying the bones and appeasing the ghosts of the dead, such was the haunting beauty of the situation.
Kay's inspiration for Shen Tai’s story lies in a poem written by eighth century Chinese poet Li Po regarding the unburied bones littering a desolate battlefield on the Tibetan borderlands, and of a solitary modern figure who is placating the ghosts of the fallen soldiers by burying their still-visible remains. In a recent interview Kay spoke about how this poem inspired him:
“That started me on my book. The idea that, 1,400 years later, these bones are unburied, and a 20th-century businessman felt a pious and psychological impulse to do what he could – 1,400 years later! – to lay to rest those ghosts. That started me thinking about a way I could start my novel. That’s how it does start.”
Indeed, the author’s deep and profound love for poetry is very evident throughout. The Tang Dynasty is known as a golden age of Chinese poetry and the character of Sima Sian, the Banished Immortal, is based upon the legendary Li Po.
A delightful Taoist theme runs throughout Under Heaven with the book’s strongest messages being that mankind’s time is transitory and attempts to create permanence are futile. It also promotes the need for balance, compassion and humility plus the importance of reverence for ancestor spirits. Kay’s work did, at times, remind me of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, another example where Taoism and fiction work together in perfect harmony. Here, as with Le Guin’s work, the painstaking attention to detail (Under Heaven showcases seven years of detailed research) results in an unrushed and thoughtful narrative that is a joy to read.
“It asks the question, if you can't do everything is it best to do nothing at all? Who chooses their fate? Who accepts the world only as it comes to them?”
Excerpt from Under Heaven
Highly recommended, Under Heaven may well prove to be our favourite book of 2010, it will certainly take some beating.
Under Heaven was published in Canada (Viking Canada) on March 30, 2010. UK (HarperVoyager) and US (Roc Hardcover) publishing dates are the April 29, 2010 and April 27, 2010 respectively.
If you have read and enjoyed Under Heaven then Peter Ward’s novel for young adult’s Dragon Horse is also highly recommended.
Note: If you like to listen to soundtracks whilst reading books, trying to match book and film, then Tan Dun’s Hero is simply perfect, the haunting opening perfectly mirroring Shen Tai’s life by the haunted shores of Kuala Nor. Tan Dun is perhaps best known for his score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which shares with Hero a visual poetry that transcends the sword-filled action film genre.
Andy from Reading
What a wonderfully written book, the characters, scenes, pace and story are all brilliantly done, this is the first GGK book I have read, and I can certainly say it will not be my last. I suppose my only criticism and it is very very small, is that the book is very neatly wound up, that said, this book is brilliant.
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