Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I am looking forward to reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, A Brightness Long Ago, which will be published in May, but before starting that one I wanted to finally read a different book by Kay which has been on my shelf unread for a few years now. That book is Under Heaven, the first of two novels (the second is River of Stars) inspired by two different Chinese dynasties, Tang and Song.

Kay writes a type of historical fantasy where the emphasis is usually more on the historical than the fantasy. With most of his novels, I at least have a little bit of familiarity with the period on which his setting is based (Renaissance Italy, medieval Spain, the Vikings etc) but the setting of Under Heaven – a fictionalised Tang China – is one I’ve never read about before and of which I have absolutely no knowledge. That made this particular book a slightly more challenging read for me than the others I’ve read by Kay, but it has also left me wanting to know more about the real history of China during this period.

In the book, China is referred to as Kitai, with Tagur (Tibet) to the west. The novel opens with Shen Tai travelling to the battle site of Kuala Nor, where his father, an army general, once led the Kitan to victory against the enemy Taguran. Now his father is dead and Tai plans to spend the two year mourning period laying to rest the bones of the forty thousand dead, both Kitan and Taguran. It seems an impossible task, but Tai is determined to try anyway:

There were too many. It was beyond hope to ever finish this: it was a task for gods descending from the nine heavens, not for one man. But if you couldn’t do everything, did that mean you did nothing?

To acknowledge his efforts, the Empress of Tagur, once a Kitan princess, promises him two hundred and fifty magnificent Sardian horses as a reward – but Tai is not as delighted as you might expect him to be at receiving such a lavish gift. As he knows, ‘You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.’ Imagine the danger a man could be in who possesses not just four or five but two hundred and fifty of these legendary animals! This is a life-changing moment for Tai and on his return journey to the imperial capital of Xinan he finds that he has become the centre of attention, with various factions at court all vying to take possession of the horses for themselves. These include An Li, a powerful military leader; Wen Zhou, the Prime Minister; and Wen Jian, the ‘Precious Consort’ of the elderly Emperor Taizu.

In a parallel storyline, Tai’s sister Li-Mei is being sent north beyond the Long Wall to Bogü (possibly Mongolia) where she is to marry the son of the Bogü leader. Marriage to a barbarian is not what Li-Mei had in mind for herself, but a chance to escape this fate comes when she is rescued by the mysterious Meshag, who takes her across the steppes on a journey as eventful and dangerous as Tai’s.

Kay’s female characters are always strong and interesting and I enjoyed following Li-Mei’s story as much as Tai’s. I’ve already mentioned Wen Jian, the emperor’s consort, who is a match for any of the men when it comes to manoeuvring her way through court politics, but my favourite of the women in the novel is Wei Song, the Kanlin warrior who is sent to protect Tai and takes her duties very seriously, even if it means putting her own life at risk. Of the male characters, apart from Tai himself, I particularly liked Bytsan sri Nespo, his Taguran friend who brings him the message about the Sardian horses, and Sima Zian, the famous poet who accompanies him to Xinan and becomes one of the few men he can trust.

Poetry runs through the novel, as does superstition, myth, legend and political intrigue – but there are only one or two small elements that you could really describe as fantasy (mainly at the beginning, with the ghosts of Kuala Nor – ‘outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down’). Most of the other Guy Gavriel Kay novels I’ve read are set in a world with one white moon and one blue, but the world of Under Heaven has only one (he makes a point of telling us that the poet Sima Zian has often dreamed of having another moon to write about). I’m curious to know why he decided to set this one in a different world to the others, especially as we were back to the two moons again in his most recent book, Children of Earth and Sky.

I will have to find out more about the Tang Dynasty and the An Shi Rebellion, but I’m also looking forward to reading River of Stars which is set four hundred years later, during the Song Dynasty. First, though, on to A Brightness Long Ago!