Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (2010)

October 1, 2010 at 2:23 pm (fantasy, Reviews)

I am a fan of Kay’s historicist fantasies – A Song for Arbonne actually made me cry.  As a historian and reader of fantasy, I’m their ideal audience.  (Admittedly, I couldn’t finish Sailing to Sarantium because it was just too depressing, but that’s an exception.)

So yeah, I liked his new book.  A lot.   Eighth-century China is a culture even more foreign than medieval France or Spain, so there was a lot to learn.

But, to enjoy Kay’s books (other than his early Arthurian trilogy), one needs to be willing to read long, long passages whose primary purpose is to illuminate the culture and the characters who live in it.  Yes, there is a plot, and yes, it involves danger and death and arranged marriages and courtesans and love and war, but the story definitely takes its time to get where it’s going.  The pacing, in other words, is not everyone’s cup of tea.

As is usual with Kay’s work, there is magic but not as a central part of the plot – just enough to add some spice and affect a few crucial points.   (Even if you think you can’t stand the book, do read up to page 46, at least.)  There’s a lot more in it about the importance of family, the Emperor’s court, and poetry than there is about magic.  The characters are slowly and wonderfully drawn – Tai in particular is a study in continuity and change.

I also suspect that the structure of the plot is itself a reflection of ancient Chinese ideas about cause and effect, but I could be wrong.

I’ll confess that the Epilogue, which apparently imitates the style of ancient Chinese historians, was a little slow even for me.   You don’t have to read that part, just the rest of it – but do read it.

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