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!

Historical Musings #49: Exploring China

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction!

I have recently read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, which is set in an alternate version of eighth century China, during the Tang Dynasty. Although I enjoyed the book, the historical period it was based on was completely unfamiliar to me, and this made me think about how little I actually know about China and its history.

Most of the novels I have read set in China are by Lisa See. The most memorable of these was probably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, from which I learned a lot about Chinese customs such as foot-binding, ‘laotong’ relationships and the secret women’s language known as Nü Shu. I also enjoyed Shanghai Girls, about two sisters who grow up in Shanghai before being sold into arranged marriages and forced to leave China behind for Los Angeles. In the sequel, Dreams of Joy, the daughter of one of the sisters returns to China and lives through the horrors of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward. Lisa See also wrote China Dolls, which is not actually set in China, but follows the stories of three girls – two Chinese and one Japanese – who work as dancers at a San Francisco nightclub in the 1930s. I haven’t read the rest of her books yet, but have The Island of Sea Women on my NetGalley shelf.

There are two books by Jamie Ford that I’ve read which feature Chinese-American characters living in Seattle in the 1930s and 40s. These are Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Songs of Willow Frost. I enjoyed both and gained some interesting insights into life in Seattle’s Chinese communities.

Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy, which I really enjoyed reading a few years ago, is set partly in China and partly in India before and during the First Opium War. You will need to start with the first book, Sea of Poppies, but the second two – River of Smoke and Flood of Fire – are where the action switches largely to China (mainly Canton and Hong Kong).

I loved The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham which is set in 1920s Hong Kong during a cholera epidemic, but that book was contemporary (published in 1925) rather than historical. There’s also the wonderful Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which is non-fiction – an autobiographical book telling the story of Chang and her mother and grandmother – but every bit as readable, dramatic and emotional as fiction. Otherwise I’m struggling to think of anything else I’ve read about China. One of my current reads, The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo, has some Chinese folklore in it but is set in 1930s Malaya – and I do remember, years ago, enjoying a book called Cloud Mountain by Aimee Liu but all the details of the plot have faded from my mind apart from the fact that it was about an American woman who marries a Chinese man in the early 20th century.

I’m sure some of you will have read much more about China than I have, so I would love to hear your recommendations. I would be particularly interested in books set in earlier periods – such as the Tang Dynasty I mentioned at the start of this post – but any suggestions are welcome!

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh

Flood of Fire Flood of Fire is the third and final part of Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy and I think it’s probably my favourite of the three books. Set in India and China before and during the First Opium War, the trilogy follows the adventures of a group of people thrown together on board a former slaving ship called the Ibis.

This third novel pulls together threads from the first two and while it may be possible to still enjoy this book without having read the others, I would strongly recommend reading all three in order. While Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke took us through the build up to the conflict, describing the disputes over the trade of opium and the deterioration of relations between Britain and China, Flood of Fire covers the war itself.

The novel opens in 1839 and the first character we meet is Kesri Singh, brother of our old friend, Deeti. Kesri is a havildar (a rank equivalent to sergeant) in the Bengal Native Infantry, part of the East India Company, and through his storyline we are given some insights into army life and the contribution made by Indian regiments to Britain’s military victories in China. Next we are reunited with Zachary Reid, the American carpenter-turned-sailor who played a major part in Sea of Poppies but was absent from River of Smoke. In this book, Zachary begins an affair with his new employer, Mrs Burnham, before setting his sights on becoming a successful businessman.

We also rejoin Neel Rattan Halder, the former Raja of Raskhali, who is now living in Canton where he is able to use his skills as an interpreter to assist China’s war effort. Neel’s story is told mainly in the form of a journal and gives us a Chinese perspective of events. Finally, the widowed Shireen Modi is travelling to Hong Kong to visit the grave of her husband, Bahram, and to try to recover some of the money he lost when his cargo of opium was confiscated in River of Smoke. These are the four main characters in Flood of Fire, but other characters from the previous two novels also make appearances, including the French botanist Paulette Lambert; her childhood friend, Jodu; Bahram Modi’s illegitimate son, Ah Fatt (known as Freddie); and Baboo Nob Kissin, the Burnhams’ agent.

Before reading these books I knew nothing at all about the First Opium War, so this trilogy has provided a perfect introduction. Devoting three long novels to a relatively short period of history allows the author to go into a lot of depth, describing first the production of opium in India (Sea of Poppies), the merchants who transported the drug to China (River of Smoke) and finally, in Flood of Fire, the reasons why Britain went to war with China after the trading of opium was banned in Canton. The events of the war itself are given a lot of attention too, from descriptions of battles and strategies to the negotiations that would lead to the British acquisition of Hong Kong.

Although there were times when I felt too much time was being spent on one character and not enough on another, I did find all of their storylines compelling and interesting – with the exception of Zachary’s affair. It was obviously intended to add some comedy to the book, but it didn’t work for me at all and I didn’t think it fit the tone of the rest of the trilogy. Zachary is the character who changes the most over the course of the three novels – and not for the better; his transformation in Flood of Fire could be seen as an example of how greed and ambition can lead to corruption, and is written quite convincingly, but I still found it disappointing as he was such a likeable person at first. As for the other characters, some of their stories end in happiness and others in sadness or tragedy, but I was pleased that they were all given a proper resolution.

The book finishes with a very long list of sources, showing the amount of research which must have gone into the writing of the Ibis Trilogy. We are told that these sources were taken from the archives of Neel Rattan Halder (one of the characters in the story) and that Neel and his descendants have left behind more information which has not yet been used. This gave me hope that, although Flood of Fire is the last of this particular trilogy, it would be possible for Amitav Ghosh to continue the story by moving forward to another period of history. Whether he does or not, I am still happy to have had the opportunity to read these three wonderful novels!

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh

River of Smoke This is the second novel in Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy. The first, Sea of Poppies, was set just before the First Opium War and introduced us to a group of people who were brought together on a voyage from India to Mauritius aboard a former slaving ship. The book ended on a cliffhanger so I was pleased that I had a copy of River of Smoke to hand and wouldn’t have long to wait to find out how the story continued.

River of Smoke was not quite what I’d expected. It does continue the story, but only for two or three of the characters. The rest of them – even the ones we spent so much time with in Sea of Poppies, such as the Indian widow Deeti and the American sailor Zachary Reid – are barely mentioned in this book. The characters who do reappear are Paulette Lambert, the orphaned daughter of a French botanist, Neel Rattan Halder, the deposed Raja of Raskhali, and his Chinese friend, Ah Fatt.

In one thread of the novel, we follow Paulette as she joins forces with Fitcher Penrose, an Englishman whom she meets in the neglected botanical garden of Pamplemousses. Together, Penrose and Paulette head for Canton where, with the help of Paulette’s childhood friend, the artist Robin Chinnery, they begin a search for the mythical golden camellia.

In a separate storyline which runs parallel with the first (and quickly begins to dominate the novel), we meet Ah Fatt’s father, Bahram Modi, an opium trader from Bombay. Bahram is transporting a large cargo of opium to China and agrees to take Neel with him as his munshi, or secretary. However, when a new commissioner arrives in Canton and the opium trade is banned, Bahram and his fellow merchants face financial ruin.

Like the first novel, River of Smoke provides us with a huge amount of historical and geographical detail. As someone who previously knew almost nothing about the Opium Wars, I now have a much better knowledge of what led to the conflict and the arguments that were used by both sides. Ghosh also brings to life the sights and sounds of Fanqui-town, the Canton settlement which was home to the foreign merchants. Unfortunately one of the devices he uses to do this involves beginning each chapter with a long letter sent by Robin Chinnery to Paulette, and this was one aspect of the book that I didn’t like at all. I had no interest in Robin as a character and it felt that his sole purpose in the novel was to write these letters, giving us pages and pages of exposition that did very little to move the story forward.

I have enjoyed both of the first two books in this trilogy, but I think I liked this one slightly more than the first. I was a bit disappointed when I discovered that River of Smoke wasn’t going to be a direct continuation of Sea of Poppies, but once I had settled into the story, I found it easier to follow because it concentrated on fewer main characters. Paulette and Neel had been two of my favourites from the previous book, anyway, and of the new ones, I found Bahram Modi a particularly well written and complex character. I couldn’t help but have some sympathy for him even though what he was doing was clearly morally wrong.

The final book in the trilogy, Flood of Fire, is due to be published soon and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m hoping we’ll be able to catch up with the other characters from Sea of Poppies who didn’t feature in this one!

China Dolls by Lisa See

China Dolls Lisa See is a Chinese-American author whose books deal with various aspects of Chinese history and culture. I had mixed feelings about the first one I read, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I loved Shanghai Girls and its sequel Dreams of Joy, so I was looking forward to reading her new novel, China Dolls.

Beginning in 1938, China Dolls is a fictional account of three young women who meet at an audition for dancers at San Francisco’s Forbidden City nightclub.

First there’s Grace Lee, who grew up in a small town in Ohio – a town so small that, apart from her parents, Grace has never met another Chinese person and has never even tasted Chinese food. She has come to San Francisco to escape from her abusive father and is hoping to build a career for herself in show business.

Then there’s Helen Fong, whose family is one of the richest and most respected in Chinatown. Her strict parents disapprove of her decision to work in a nightclub…until Helen points out that she will be earning much more than in her current job at the Chinese Telephone Exchange. Helen appears to have led a sheltered life, but is hiding some secrets which she is reluctant to reveal even to her friends.

Finally, there’s Ruby Tom from Hawaii. Ruby, who is the most outgoing and flamboyant of the three, also has a big secret: although she has allowed everyone to think she is Chinese, she is actually Japanese. If the authorities learn the truth, Ruby could be in trouble, especially when anti-Japanese sentiment increases following the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Three girls with very different personalities and from very different backgrounds! Despite having little in common, they are drawn together that day at the audition and become friends, helping and supporting each other as they try to fulfil their ambitions. As the months and years go by, though, the girls find that their friendship is tested by a series of lies and betrayals, disagreements and withheld secrets.

China Dolls was compelling enough to keep me interested right to the end but I found it quite disappointing after Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy. The main reason for my disappointment was something which should have been the strong point of the book: the friendship between Grace, Helen and Ruby. It just wasn’t convincing at all! The three of them didn’t even seem to like each other and were certainly not ‘like the Three Musketeers’, as they claimed. They said and did some terrible things to each other and I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just go their separate ways in life.

The structure of the novel, with the three girls taking turns to narrate chapters, was also a problem for me. I got the impression that the story Lisa See really wanted to write was Grace’s – she is the easiest character to like and identify with, and she seemed to get a few more chapters than the others too – so I think I would rather have had the entire book written from Grace’s perspective. Having said that, Ruby’s story had the potential to be the most interesting, particularly after Pearl Harbor, and she was also the only one whose narrative voice felt significantly different (filled with some of the lively slang of the period); the other two were interchangeable and sometimes it was easy to forget who was narrating.

Grace, as I’ve mentioned, was my favourite of the three girls but she didn’t have much competition as I really disliked both Helen and Ruby – particularly Helen, whom I never really felt I understood or could have any sympathy for, despite some of the ordeals she had been through. Of the novel’s other characters, only one or two play a significant part in the story, and the rest are just secondary – though I was interested to discover, after finishing the book, that some of the characters I’d assumed were fictional were actually people who really existed.

The historical backdrop of the story is excellent; everything feels thoroughly researched and we are given lot of great insights into the entertainment world of the 1930s and 1940s, in particular what it was like to work in a Chinese nightclub and the challenges facing the Chinese performers. The book deals with lots of serious issues – from racism and prejudice to domestic violence and wartime atrocities – but because the main characters were so shallow, I felt that these issues weren’t explored in as much depth as they could have been.

So, not a favourite Lisa See novel, but still worth reading for its depiction of Chinese American life in the first half of the twentieth century.

Turn of the Century Salon: The Painted Veil by W Somerset Maugham

The Painted Veil Despite the attempts of her mother to arrange a good marriage for her, Kitty Garstin is in no hurry to find a husband. She’s too busy enjoying herself at parties and dances, and it’s only when she’s still unmarried at the age of twenty-five and discovers that her younger sister has become engaged to a baronet that she begins to panic. She agrees to marry Walter Fane, a bacteriologist, and moves to Hong Kong with him. Walter is shy, clever and serious and to the pretty, frivolous Kitty, he seems very cold and aloof. Although he is in love with her, she doesn’t love him in return and soon begins an affair with the charming, charismatic Assistant Colonial Secretary, Charles Townsend.

Eventually Walter learns the truth about Kitty and Charles and confronts Kitty with an ultimatum. She can either accompany him into the interior of China where he has volunteered to deal with a cholera epidemic, or he will allow her to divorce him – but only if Charles agrees to divorce his wife and immediately marry Kitty. When Kitty goes to discuss the situation with Charles, she is cruelly disillusioned by her lover and is left with no other option than to travel to Mei-tan-fu with Walter. Kitty is convinced that Walter is taking her there in the hope that she will die, but it’s here in this remote cholera-ridden city that Kitty finally begins to grow as a person and to make some discoveries about both herself and her husband.

This book was such a surprise. I think I must have formed a preconceived idea that I wouldn’t like Somerset Maugham without ever having tried any of his books or knowing anything about him, because I really didn’t expect to love this as much as I did. I’m so pleased to find that I was wrong! The Painted Veil is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. I found Maugham’s writing much easier to read than I had thought it might be, but also filled with beauty, poignancy and emotion.

This is quite a short novel but both main characters have a lot of depth and complexity. I disliked Kitty at first – she’s selfish, spoiled and immature – but the fact that she is so flawed and makes such terrible mistakes is what makes her so human. Kitty is changed by her experiences in Mei-tan-fu and we see her mature and gain in wisdom and insight. By the end of the book, I still didn’t like her but I had a better understanding of her and I wanted her to be happy. I had more sympathy for Walter, but because we are viewing him through Kitty’s eyes, we don’t really have a chance to see the other side of his personality that we hear about – when the nuns in the convent tell Kitty how much they admire him, for example, and how tender and loving he can be with the orphaned babies there. Kitty barely knows or understands her husband at all and when she finally begins to do so, we are made to wonder whether it’s going to be too late.

There aren’t a lot of long, descriptive passages in this book but 1920s China is still portrayed beautifully and I loved this description of Kitty watching the rooftops emerging from the mist on her first morning in Mei-tan-fu:

But suddenly from that white cloud a tall, grim, and massive bastion emerged. It seemed not merely to be made visible by the all-discovering sun but rather to rise out of nothing at the touch of a magic wand. It towered, the stronghold of a cruel and barbaric race, over the river. But the magician who built worked swiftly and now a fragment of coloured wall crowned the bastion; in a moment, out of the mist, looming vastly and touched here and there by a yellow ray of sun, there was seen a cluster of green and yellow roofs. Huge they seemed and you could make out no pattern; the order, if order there was, escaped you; wayward and extravagant, but of an unimaginable richness. This was no fortress, nor a temple, but the magic palace of some emperor of the gods where no man might enter. It was too airy, fantastic, and unsubstantial to be the work of human hands; it was the fabric of a dream.

Turn of the Century Salon - March I read The Painted Veil for Katherine’s Turn of the Century Salon. This book was published in 1925 and with its portrayal of society in 1920s colonial Hong Kong and an era when many girls were still raised with the sole aim of making a good marriage, this was an ideal choice for the Salon. If you read it I would also recommend reading Shelley’s sonnet Lift Not The Painted Veil and Oliver Goldsmith’s An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay

As a woman in 1925, Irene Blum feels that her work does not get the recognition it deserves. When she misses out on the position of curator at Seattle’s Brooke Museum, she dreams of making an important historical discovery, one that she can build her own museum around. Since her childhood she has been fascinated by Cambodia and its ancient Khmer civilisation, so when she learns of the possible existence of ten copper scrolls recording the history of the Khmer people she sets off on an expedition to Cambodia to search for them.

Irene begins her journey in Shanghai where she hopes to enlist the help of Simone Merlin, a revolutionary activist and Cambodian scholar who shares Irene’s interest in the Khmer. Despite the disapproval of her abusive husband Simone agrees to join her. At first Irene is pleased to have Simone’s support, but soon begins to wonder whether she might have reasons of her own for wanting to find the lost scrolls.

The novel is divided into three sections. The first is set in Shanghai, China, the second in Saigon, Vietnam and in the third Irene, Simone and their companions finally arrive at their destination, the Cambodian jungle. None of these are places that I know very much about (Cambodia was a completely new setting for me and the other two I only have a very limited knowledge of) and I loved all the descriptions of the three locations. It’s always interesting to read about cultures that are entirely different to your own and by the time I’d finished the book I felt I’d learned a little bit about what life might have been like in China, Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1920s, as well as learning some facts about the Khmer civilisation.

The Map of Lost Memories is not a fast-paced thriller filled with non-stop action and adventure, although it might sound like one from the synopsis. Instead, the story develops quite slowly (a bit too slowly for me, to be honest, especially throughout the first half of the novel) and although Irene and Simone do have some adventures and things get more exciting later in the book, there’s also a lot of focus on the personal lives of the two women, their relationships and their motives for searching for the legendary scrolls.

It was good to read a book set in the 1920s with strong female protagonists at a time when women didn’t have the same career opportunities they have today. However, although I sympathised with Irene’s frustration at her achievements constantly being overlooked or ignored and I admired her dedication and determination, I was never able to warm to her as a character. Unfortunately I didn’t feel much connection to any of the other characters either, which meant that even when they were heading into danger I found I didn’t really care what happened to them. The plot and the setting almost made up for my lack of interest in the characters so I did still enjoy the book, but not as much as I might otherwise have done. This was a promising debut novel, though – it was obvious that the author must have a real passion for Cambodia and Khmer history and that she knows the subject well.