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Bookends: Troubled Times Under Heaven March 19, 2012

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Bookends: Troubles Times Under Heaven

By Dan Davidson

February 1, 2012

Star, Feb. 3/12

– 869 words –

Under Heaven

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Penguin Books

716 pages

$13.50

 

At the height of the glory of the Empire of Kitai, under the reign of Taizu,  the Son of Heaven, a gift of horses sundered the realm and did it more damage than any of its enemies had been able to do for generations.

It began when Shen Tai, the second son of the late General Shen Gao, undertook a two year vigil to bury and lay to rest the bones of those killed in the great battle of Kuala Nor. It was a task he undertook to honour the memory of his father, a task that was little understood by his family, friends, fellow countrymen or especially the Tagur with whom the armies of Kitai had clashed.

Though it was not understood, it was honoured by both sides of the conflict, and Tai was kept in supplies during his lonely vigil by both sides of the conflict. So honoured was he for his task in quieting the very noisy ghosts of that place that the daughter of the ruler of Tagur made him a gift of horses.

Such a gift! Two hundred and fifty Sardian horses, the most prized of all such animals. It was a gift that could complicate a man’s life beyond all measure. He must take them to the imperial capital at Xinan and present them to his emperor who, in turn, because honour and face would demand it, would have to give him an even greater gift in response.

This would happen if he should survive the journey, for the next visitor to come after the announcement was given him was a student friend of his accompanied, though he did not know it, by a woman warrior of the Kanlin school, who had been ordered to kill him.  He was saved by the ghosts, and the intervention of  the Taguran commander who had brought him the news.

For Tai it was the beginning of a long journey home, a journey complicated and yet made possible by another Kanlin warrior, one hired by a dear friend and lover to protect his life from a plot that stretched back to the imperial palace. The other complication came from the instantly enhanced status due to the owner of 250 horses, beasts which he must live to collect in person after visiting the capital. This does not prevent more attempts on his life, but, as he gathers a retinue around him, supplied by an anxious regional governor, it becomes less likely that these will succeed.

This is only one strand of the multi-layered plot that Kay has dreamed up this time, setting his story in a fictionalized version of the Chinese Tang dynasty (Kitai is a Russian word for China) at the time when it, too, began to fall apart. The reasons for that decay would have been much more complex than we see here, but upsetting the social fabric of a society that places such store in manners and status provides a believable story.

We also follow Tai’s sister, Li-Mei, who has been elevated to the royal family in order to be shuttled off to a diplomatic marriage with the leader of the Bogü people of the steppes to the north. She is saved from that fate by the kagan’s brother, Meshag, who Tai met and saved from a mystic assassination attempt during his years of military service. The failed attempt to transfer Meshag’s soul into the body of a wolf in order to have his younger brother become the kagan had left him not quite human and bonded with the pack leader.

We spend some time with Spring Rain, the courtesan who had captured Tai’s heart when he was a student preparing for the arduous civil service exams and the life of a bureaucrat.

Directly and indirectly we come to know Wei Song, the true Kanlin warrior who takes on the task of bodyguard to Tai, first because she was hired for it, and later for other reasons.

Kay’s manner of fashioning a fantasy is to borrow from the real history and mythology of various cultures around the world (Spain, France and Byzantium, for example) and then introduce some mythic and mystic spice to his revised version of history.  Read a reference entry on the Tang dynasty and you will recognize the extremely vague outlines of the culture and history he has used here, but the result is not a historical novel (though Kay often slips into a historian’s omniscient voice to offer brief summaries of events offscreeen), which is why this book has been nominated for four major fantasy related awards since it first appeared in 2010.

Kay does a tremendous amount of world building for each of his books and, unlike most fantasy writers, does not repeat himself with sequels or series. His first book was a trilogy, but it was one story. Later on he wrote a book whose story took two volumes to tell. Most often he produces massive 700 plus page-turners with just enough of the fantastic in them to keep them within the genre, even though his publisher no longer markets him that way.

 

-30-

 

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