Review: Under Heaven

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I think I just experienced a reading slump. The blog hasn’t been affected, because my staggering control issues keep my posting buffer nice and clean, but I had a pretty good ten to twelve days where I just could not summon up the enthusiasm to pick Under Heaven pack up again. I meant to! I brought it to work, I left it on the kitchen table, but nothing could, until I realized that I had to get through it to get to anything else. So I forced myself to sit down one Friday and Saturday and finish it off in two shifts, and I feel much better now.

Under Heaven is a fictionalized and fantasized version of the An Shi Rebellion. Set in the Ninth Dynasty of Kitai, the novel opens by following Shen Tai. Son of a decorated general who has now passed, Shen Tai elected to spend his two year mourning period burying the dead at Kuala Nor, a site of a great battle between Kitai and its foe, Tagur, with reverence and respect for each body, no matter which side. His work has not gone unnoticed, and Shen Tai, for his efforts, receives a gift from the wife of the Emperor of Tagur, a Kitan princess: two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. One Sardian horse is cause enough for envy; several can be cause for murder. Two hundred and fifty horses? Such consequences can’t even be conceived, and the first assassination attempt comes on the heels of the gift. With a guard and some escorts, Shen Tai races to Xinan, the capital, to decide what to do with his gift, but even his problems pale in the face of a shaky empire.

Oh, Guy Gavriel Kay. I was lukewarm towards The Summer Tree and loved Tigana, so I was expecting to see shades of Tigana’s excellence in Under Heaven; the amazing characterization, the compact but effective worldbuilding, and moments of great emotion. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so. The novel has several problems, but I think the worldbuilding is the biggest. Well, not the worldbuilding per se—Kay is a master of it, especially extrapolating from sources that aren’t medieval England, and he builds a believable world a few shades away from Imperial China. The problem is that he falls prey to Worldbuilder’s Disease, and there are paragraphs upon paragraphs simply describing the world to us in a particularly philosophical tone that aggravates it further. I’m not sure what happened here. Kay has proven that he can write a novel without this sort of bloat, but perhaps the fact that the setting is a huge draw—we simply don’t have enough non-medieval England-based fantasy novels—and the fact that philosophy is an important part of Imperial Chinese and therefore Kitan culture, which gives him an extremely thin excuse to do this. (Plus, the philosophical tone can be a bit obscufating at times, which doesn’t help with clarity. To be fair, there are some good philosophical moments.) It’s disheartening, and makes it hard to try and get a grip on the actual story that’s taking place here.

And Shen Tai is really a very small part of that story. I think part of my disappointment here is failed expectations, rather than the actual story itself; the novel, for all its digressions into politics, among other pieces of bloat, is essentially about Shen Tai moving on from his father’s death and taking up his proper place in his family, especially in the context of his brother’s family-sacrificing ambition. But the concept of the Sardian horses and the sheer grandiosity of Shen Tai’s gift is what attracted me to the novel, but the horses are only a political chip that gives Shen Tai power for the first time in his life. Again, totally fair, but the marketing set them up to seem much more important and personal then they actually were. The novel sidesteps into the Imperial household, the life of an old love of Shen Tai’s, and, in a particularly long subplot, the story of Shen Tai’s sister, Li-Mei, who is indirectly rescued from an unsavory fate by her brother’s kindness. (Interestingly, any portions from a female point of view are written in first person, for reasons I can’t quite parse out.) It just feels unfocused; there’s a clear story here, but Kay can’t resist these tangents, which are about half and half in terms of being actually important to Shen Tai’s story.

Ultimately, it’s just disappointing, from the out of the blue final couple (I did actually ask the book what it thought it was on about) to the bloated worldbuilding. (Perhaps Kay felt a Western audience wouldn’t know enough about Imperial China in general? But then, I know jack about Imperial China beyond fireworks and eyeglasses and it was still too much…) To be fair, I enjoyed Li-Mei as a character and her story, the worldbuilding is impeccable, for all its bloat, and the treatment of courtesans is kind and interesting here. But these few bright spots can’t make up for the entire novel. Sigh. I guess Kay will always be hit or miss for me…

Bottom line: Under Heaven, despite its impeccable worldbuilding and kind and interesting treatment of courtesans, is a bit of a bloated miss, creaking under the weight of a particularly severe case of Worldbuilder’s Disease. Avoid.

I rented this book from the public library.

7 thoughts on “Review: Under Heaven

  1. This and Tigana were my least favourite Kay novels. It was especially disappointing because this one came after The Last Light of the Sun, which I thought was his best. It’s like all the restraint in language &c. in Last Light evaporated and he just couldn’t hold back for this one.

  2. I’m leery of Guy Gavriel Kay because of very lukewarm feelings about The Summer Tree also. But! Tigana is on my shelf now, having been borrowed from my sister, and I think that will be a success. I’ve never heard anyone (as far as I can recall) say bad things about Tigana. Only glowing sparkling things.

  3. I also had lukewarm (to negative) feelings about Summer Tree, but I liked Tigana very much. Unfortunately Tigana is what I read first, so it’s the later lukewarm feelings that have stuck with me, and I’ve been unable to muster any enthusiasm for trying more Kay.

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