Sunday, February 6, 2011

Under Heaven - Guy Gavriel Kay

I've been excited about reading this since I first heard it was coming out, and it definitely lived up to expectations. It is fantastical history which is a genre all of its own as far as I know. There are lots of people who do historical retellings, but GGK throws in a touch or more of fantasy which makes it extra-special. I think it would be really easy to do this wrong, but the fantastical bits just slip right in and make the fact that the whole world is unfamiliar seem easier to deal with. At least to me. I know how to go about reading fantasy, and I know that I'm not required to have any extra knowledge to make things work.

Under Heaven is wonderful. I've read a bit of the jacket quote to several people, and it is a fabulous bit that just grabbed me right away, let me know I was going to love the book, and was a great intro to the story without giving any of the action away, Tai is informed that he is to be presented with 250 Sardian horses:

You give a man one of the legendary Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propelling him toward rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Giving two hundred and fifty is unthinkable - a gift to overwhelm an emperor.

Tai realizes some of the implications this gift will have, and tries to prepare himself to cope, but he doesn't have the imagination or the experience to prepare him for everything to come.

This is the retelling of a moment in the history of the Tang dynasty in China, and while some of the details have been altered slightly (at any rate, they're different from what I found on Wikipedia - and who knows how accurate that might be), it is a wonderful story and makes me feel like I really understand what happened back then. GGK also has this wonderful way of showing you how events will appear to someone reading about them in a history book, which simultaneously makes it easier for him to get away with changing some of the details - because who really knows what actually happened after all - and helping you realize how the world works.

One of my favorite bits happened near the beginning of the book when Tai is stopping at a Pleasure Palace on his way back to civilization, and enters the room to find one of his favorite poets, the Banished Immortal, holding court. This man is renowned for his poetry, considered one of the greatest living poets, and Tai is just completely overawed to be in his presence. Yet the scene is told from the first person perspective of a young, foreign courtesan, who is hideously bored by poetry, and incredibly irritated that this disgusting, drunken, obnoxious and filthy man is the centre of attention. At first I couldn't fathom why we were seeing the world through her eyes, but then I realized that it was giving me a much better perspective on this character, who was to be very important throughout the story, and was in fact an important historical figure, than I could possibly have gotten looking through the eyes of someone who already loved him and his poetry. The rest of the book would show him through rose-coloured glasses, but this small glimpse of another facet was just amazing. There is always more than one side to a story.

The other thing I love about this, and pretty much every book of GGK's I've ever read - he writes wonderful female characters. They're real people, not just love interests. Even when their role in the story is, or should be, primarily a love interest, they're always so much more than that. The Emperor's concubine who could so easily have no personality at all is a major political player, Tai's sister is incredibly courageous even when she thinks all possible hope is lost, the courtesan he loves is an amazingly strong and intelligent woman, and the Kanlin Warrior who travels with him is also quite a character.

While I have enjoyed all of GGK's books, this one is special. The story is fabulous, the characters are amazing, and I think he really nailed the ending. I'm waiting for Sky to read it, because I want to know what he thinks - there's a chance he'll hate this ending, because it does have that element of randomness that real life tends to have - but I think the randomness is handled beautifully, and that it highlights the fact that there are many possible happy endings. In fact, most people will find happiness in whatever ending finds them.

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