Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest historical fantasy

Guy Gavriel Kay. Under Heaven (Viking 2010).

In Under Heaven, an epic historical drama playing off the An-Lushan rebellion during the Tang Dynasty in eighth century China, Guy Gavriel Kay constructs a multi-faceted historical fiction that brilliantly evokes life at all levels of a complex, hierarchical culture. Beginning far from the centre of empire, it moves through various levels of society and the complicated politics of an imperial court, eventually devolving into civil war.

Under Heaven begins in a remote, border, area of Kitai, the killing fields of Kuala Nor, where Shen Tai, the second son of a great general who led the Kitan forces in the last great war some twenty years earlier, has spent the two years of his official mourning burying some of the innumerable dead of both sides, Taguran and Kitan, giving them all equal reverence. The border garrisons of both countries honour his work, and have taken turns bringing him food and fuel while he has carried out his solitary labour. Moreover, news of his efforts has reached the highest levels of the Taguran court, and one of its princesses, a daughter of the Kitan Emperor wed to the Tagurn monarch to seal the peace treaty, has given Tai two hundred and fifty legendary Sardian horses, which Kitai has long desired.

Thus begins Tai’s dangerous journey through the many levels of his society, as he seeks to preserve his life, as well as the honour of his family, while returning to the capital, Xinan, where he hopes to pledge the horses to the Emperor. As the main protagonst, Tai finds help from a Kanlin Warrior guard and Sima Jian, ‘the Banished Immortal,’ who is based on Li Bai (better knownstill as Li Po), as well, later, from some very highly placed members of the Imperial Court. But his sister, who has been made a princess and sent off to marry a leader of the barbarian allies to the north of the Great Wall, is rescued from her brutal husband-to-be by a warrior Tai saved many years before, also gets to see aspects of life in both the further reaches of Kitai and beyond. Both have reason to distrust their older brother, who serves a First Minister more interested in his own career than in doing what’s best for the country.

By choosing to observe this ancient and complex culture through the eyes of two highly observant members of a middling family in it, Kay ably represents the varied life of the court, the army, university, and the entertainment districts of the cities. As a barbarian general heading the armies of the north and the First Minister vie for supreme power under the Emperor, and the Precious Consort, the most beautiful woman in the country and also a brilliant tactician of the Court, seeks to preserve the balance between them, Kay masterfully captures all the nuances of politesse in this highly traditional and hierarchical society. He also shifts effortlessly between a dark and adventurous narrative style and an ironic and distanced scholarly one that suggests the individuals whom he has made us care for are mere unknown ciphers in the larger historical movements of a distant early period.
But those individual characters, and their various interactions both before and after the actual action of the main narratives, are so powerfully rendered in Under Heaven that we are caught up in their lives and loves even as we recognize that indeed the huge movements of war and loss that afflict all empires eventually bury them all. Under Heaven is perhaps Kay’s most mature novel; it is certainly a grand and engaging narrative.

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