I have made a bargain with myself: I have to review Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay before I can start reading Kay’s most recent book, River of Stars. I am a harsh task master since there is nothing I want to do more right now that start reading the new book but one must have discipline.
Kay is the master of historical fantasy. He began his writing career with the Tolkien-inspired high fantasy series The Fionavar Tapestry but his real success has been with fact-inspired novels like A Song For Arbonne (set in medieval Languedoc) and The Lions of Al-Rassan (which focuses on the tensions between Muslims, Christians and Jews in medieval Spain). In Under Heaven, he takes Tang Dynasty China and the An Shi Rebellion as his inspiration and the results are spectacular, easily on par with The Lions of Al-Rassan, which, until now, I had considered his best work.
Shen Tai has spent two years among the dead. Living alone on the plain between the kingdoms of Tagur and Kitai, where years before a great battle was fought, Tai spends his days burying the bones of the dead and his nights listening to the ghosts of those he has not yet buried. A young man with many talents but no fixed career, Tai has chosen to spend the official two and half year mourning period following his father’s death burying the dead at Kuala Nor, to “honour his father’s sorrow” for what happened there. But before his mourning period is ended, Tai’s quiet is disrupted; first by a gift of overwhelming and terrible generosity, then by an assassin’s attack.
The White Jade Princess, sent twenty years before from her homeland of Kitai to wed the ruler of Tagur and cement the peace between the two warring nations, has bestowed a gift on Tai in recognition of what he has done at Kuala Nor. She has given him rare Sardian horses, called Heavenly Horses in Kitan, where “Tai’s people longed for them with a passion that had influenced imperial policy, warfare, and poetry for centuries”:
You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.
The Princess Cheng-wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.
A gift of two hundred and fifty Sardian horses can change a man’s life. Or, as Tai knows, end it.
But desire for the horses is not the only reason people might want Tai dead. Shortly after learning of the Princess’ gift to him, one of Tai’s old friends arrives in Kuala Nor to give him news of his family. Before the friend can speak, he is killed and the assassin, who had masqueraded as his bodyguard, turns on her real target: Tai. Tai escapes but it is clear to him that he needs to return to Xinan, the Kitan capital, and discover who wants him dead and why. In the company of Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior sent by his old lover, a courtesan named Spring Rain who is now under the protection of the prime minister, to guard Tai, and later the poet Sima Zian, Tai sets off to learn how the world – and his family – has changed in the two years he has been gone.
Meanwhile, Tai’s only sister, Li-Mei, is on a journey of her own. Once a lady-in-attendance to the empress, Li-Mei has recently been named a princess and is accompanying the true princess, the thirty-first daughter of the emperor, to Bogü where Li-Mei is to become the umpteenth wife of the ruler’s second-son. It is a great honour for her family, one engineered by her eldest brother Liu, but the canny, sophisticated Li-Mei is horrified that she is being sent against her will to live among barbarians. A life among uneducated nomadic tribes people on the steppes is not what she had dreamed of during all those years at court, before the emperor fell in love with Wen Jian, the precious consort, and the empress and her attendants were sent away from Xinan:
Li-Mei has prided herself all her life (had been praised by her father for it, if ruefully) on being more curious and thoughtful than most women. More than most men, he’d added once. She has remembered that moment: where they were, how he looked at her, saying it.
She is skilled at grasping new situations and changing ones, the nuances of men and women in veiled, elusive exchanges. She’d even developed a sense of the court, of manoeuvrings for power in her time with the empress, before they were exiled and it stopped mattering.
She dreams that Tai will rescue her but Tai, by the time her learns of her fate, is too far away to reach her. But in a way he does save her as Li-Mei’s rescuer comes to her aid become of a debt he feels he owes Tai. Their journey and the dangers they face are much simpler than the ones Tai and his companions encounter, but no less fascinating.
Kay does everything perfectly in this book. Really. He is always so good at spinning complicated webs of political intrigue but here he excels himself. Tai cannot plot and scheme the way so many of the people around him can, but he is clever enough to at least understand the different character’s motivations. With the gift of the two-hundred and fifty horses, Tai returns to Xinan as an important man, no longer the insignificant student he had been when he had lived there years before. He finds himself in the company of the most powerful figures of the day: Wen Jian, the emperor’s crafty concubine; Wen Zhou, the petty prime minister; and An Li, the aging general who soon launches a rebellion against the emperor that results in the deaths of millions. Kay is masterful at building tension among these characters and the tragic scenes towards the end of the novel are brilliantly executed.
Kay’s female characters are always excellent but here they dominate. As much as I was enjoying Tai’s journey, I was always so excited when I turned the page to discover that the story had shifted back to Li-Mei. And the women who surround Tai on a daily basis are extraordinary. Wen Jian, the Precious Consort, has already changed the empire: her beauty is captured forever in poetry and song, the face and form so perfect that the emperor banished his empress to make room for the younger woman in his palace and court. But Wen Jian is more than just a pretty face; she has taken full advantage of her exalted position and is as firmly enmeshed in the activities that lead to the rebellion as any of the political leaders. Spring Rain, the blonde haired, green eyed concubine from Sardia who Tai had loved as a student, keeps mostly quiet, sensitive to her fragile position in Wen Zhou’s household, but is admirably practical and level-headed when disaster strikes. And it is she who sent Wei Song to protect Tai. Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior, is the quietest of the four main female characters but her presence and influence on Tai is inescapable and, after Li-Mei, I loved her best. When she does speak, she is sharp and witty and certainly not afraid to tell Tai exactly what she thinks of him.
Oh, it is all so good. I only finished reading it last week (staying up later than I probably should have, but I defy you to put this down once you are within a hundred or even two hundred pages of the end) but already I’m eager to reread it. But first, on to River of Stars!