Sunday, September 4, 2011

Guy Gavriel Kay - Under Heaven

Guy Gavriel Kay, Under Heaven, Harper Voyager, 2010.

This is a story about living in interesting times, and of having greatness thrust upon you. The main character, Tai, spent two years living in isolation, working on a personal mission to bury the bones of soldiers on a remote battlefield. He is rewarded with an unexpected gift, two hundred and fifty horses. This forces him to return home to the capital and engage with a world that has changed during his absence.

Tai discovers that his brother has become adviser to the first minister, and his sister has been made a princess and sent as a bride beyond the northern border. We follow her adventures in the northern region, where Tai had previously served in the army. Tai becomes involved in palace politics, and everything changes.

The story is set in a society based on ancient China, though no knowledge of history is required. It is a fantasy, but the fantasy seems to exist only in two aspects of the story: the ghosts of the dead soldiers, and the shamanistic powers in the north.

This was an interesting story, partly because the main character seemed rather passive, having to react to circumstances beyond his control rather than asserting his will. At times, the story is a very personal examination of his inner thoughts, while at other times the author draws back from the action and describes how events are later understood or interpreted by historians and poets. The juxtaposition of a personal account and a wider view shows that objectivity is difficult to achieve, and the later presentation of events is no less subjective than any individual's perception of them at the time.

As always, I enjoy Kay's writing, with the vivid descriptions of people and places, the balance between the characters' personal motivations and the larger events that seem to control their fates, and the occasional insights into the minor characters' lives.

I recommend this book, and readers who are encountering Kay's work for the first time would do well to try his earlier novels, too.

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