Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.
It's entirely appropriate, with a title like Under Heaven, that Guy Gavriel Kay's new novel should open beneath a big sky. An almost overwhelmingly big sky. All that stands between it and Shen Tai - sometime soldier, sometime student, son of an elite general and two years into a self-imposed exile in the desolate west - is the roof of the tiny cabin in which he sleeps. To honour his late father's memory, or make expiation for his deeds - or both - Tai has taken up residence on the haunted battlefield by Kuala Nor, and spends his days burying the bones of those who fell there. At night, he hears the voices of the ones he has not yet reached, and knows that
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?
The fact that he makes no distinction between the two sides, laying to rest the Kitan whom his father commanded and the Tagurans who fought them alike, makes Tai - alone and exposed under a big sky between two great regional powers - an object of some interest. The sort of interest that, say, a pair of cats might take in a mouse that had scampered obliviously across the path of their staring match. One day, out of apparently nowhere, Cheng-wan, the White Jade Princess - a daughter of the Kitan emperor, sent west to join the Taguran emperor's wives by way of sweetening the peace treaty that ended the Kuala Nor clash - sends Tai a gift in return for his labours: two hundred and fifty horses.
Just as they were by T'ang China - the regime on which Kay's Kitan empire is based - good quality ("Heavenly") horses from the plains far to the west are endlessly, hopelessly coveted by the Kitai. "Tai’s people," we're told, "longed for them with a passion that had influenced imperial policy, warfare, and poetry for centuries." While the gift of the horses initially seems like little more than a gambit to force Tai from his solitude and get the plot in motion, as the story plays out the truth of this passage becomes more and more clear - not least, in the equal weighting it gives to policy, war and poetry. Seasoned Kay readers might suspect that this is a major reason as to why he chose to create a culture based on the T'ang, and indeed there are numerous examples of T'ang-style poetry sprinkled throughout the book. As it was in the T'ang period (and under later dynasties), poetry is not a matter for lone outsider artists, but a fundamental means of communication and display for the elite men of the Kitan empire.
Like any well-educated Kitai, Tai has been trained in the proper forms and themes of poetry, and can come up with an appropriate verse within moments, as the situation demands (which it frequently does). It is indispensible for his career and social status; poetic composition is one of the central skills tested in the civil service examinations, for which Tai was studying when his father died. (This, again, mirrors the history of the real China, in the T'ang period and later.) One politically pivotal exchange takes place through the medium of a poetry contest, and an important secondary character is a legendary poet and carouser named Sima Zian. Tai, on meeting him for the first time, is endearingly starstruck and immediately charmed - as are we - but he also notices something that marks Zian out from the polished, carefully controlled individuals Tai is used to seeing in the Kitan capital of Xinan:
It was easy to see a tiger in the wide eyes holding his, Tai thought. For all the wit and worldliness of the poet, there was also something feral, a link to the wilderness that lay outside the walled and guarded cities. Sima Zian had been a bandit, on rivers and roads, never entirely part of court or courtesan district.
The conceptual space of the wilderness, set against the safe, confining city, is another touchstone of Kay's earlier work. The reappearance of this juxtposition in Under Heaven feels both familiar and entirely correct: both China and Kitai have a long history of being haunted, enchanted and attacked by the peoples of the steppes to the north and west ("where the emptiness of the grasslands could dwarf a man, or change his soul"), and the Kitan elite derive much of their sense of worth and identity from the physical and cultural walls separating them from what they are not. For Lin Fong, commander of a two-bit border fort in the far end of nowhere - and one of many examples in the book of a minor character who comes to vivid life in the space of a few pages, rounding out our picture of this world - it is vital to follow the new Xinan fashion of drinking tea:
He wasn't that sure he liked the taste of the drink, even sweetened with mountain honey, but he did enjoy the idea of himself as a man in tune with court and city culture, even here on a desolate border where it was almost impossible to find a man worth listening to.
What did you do when faced with this as your life? You reminded yourself, over and again, that you were a civilized man in the most civilized empire ever known.
Seeing this theme evoked here reinforces the impression that, in T'ang China, Kay has finally found the Platonic form of his thematic and artistic concerns. Another of these is beauty - which, as Niall notes in his review, is explored amply in Under Heaven - and, in particular, the way that beauty is imagined and valued by a culture. Central to any discussion of this is, of course, the position of women, who are so often the repository of ideas about beauty rather than its shapers. It is to the women of Under Heaven that I shall devote the remainder of this post.
I have mentioned that it is a gift of horses which sets the plot in motion. Such is the importance of horses among the Kitai that possession of so many of them puts Tai in grave danger - there are plenty of people who would kill for such a prize - and gives him, abruptly, not only access to power but an obligation to exercise it. Before receiving the gift, Tai was not a nobody; his father was a prominent general and his elder brother, Shen Liu, has become a high-level courtier. But he can no longer avoid political life; two hundred and fifty horses are enough to shift the balance of power in the empire quite decidedly.
What is particularly interesting, for present purposes, is that it is a woman who makes this gift. We never meet Cheng-wan directly. In many respects, she is the very archetype of the high-born woman in a patriarchal society: innocent, marriageable pawn subject to the winds and whims of male politics ("An emblem in her young person [...] a slender, graceful token of peace"), grown into a capricious power-behind-the-throne, forever doomed to work her inscrutable will through male agents. A vehicle for men's artistic and political expression, without a voice in her own right:
There had been a fall of poems like flower petals in Kitai that autumn, pitying her in parallel lines and rhyme: married to a distant horizon, fallen from heaven, lost to the civilized world (of parallel lines and rhyme) beyond snowbound mountain barriers, among barbarians on their harsh plateau.
It had been the literary fashion for that time, an easy theme, until one poet was arrested and beaten with the heavy rod in the square before the palace—and nearly died of it—for a verse suggesting this was not only lamentable, but a wrong done to her.
Nor does she get her own voice, even here; Tai is given a letter from her, but its contents are not related, only their effect on him (the typically Kay "It became something of an exercise to breathe"). Nonetheless, Cheng-wan's story is echoed, amplified, and to some degree avenged through what is done to and by Li-Mei, Tai's sister and second only to Tai as a viewpoint character. While Tai has been engaged in his somewhat solipsistic toil in the west, the machinations of his brother Liu have sent Li-Mei to the north. Like Cheng-wan before her, Li-Mei is to be married off for the sake of political stability, far from home and to a man she has never met. In return, Liu has risen considerably in the service of the new prime minister, Wen Zhou.
The necessity and rightness of obedience to her elder brother's will has been drummed into Li-Mei all her life, since - patriarchal power structures being what they are - his will is the family's, and family is everything:
"And, sister, you will always remember that you represent this family, not only yourself, in everything you do. Do you understand?"
And a third time Li-Mei nodded her head.
"Say it," her brother commanded.
"I understand," she said, as clearly as she could manage. Six years old, mud and overripe fallen fruit on her face and hands and clothing. Representing her family in all she did.
When we meet Li-Mei, then, she is both stunned and upset by the utter transformation of her life, but she is also doing her best to meet the challenge with courage. Where Tai is reserved and serious to a point just short of pomposity, Li-Mei is warm and immediate. Her sections are narrated in the present tense, and she hides her self and her fears and hopes much less well. Although she has even less control over her situation than her brother does over his, and has a fraction of his experience of the world outside their home estate - let alone the lonely, frightening expanses of the north - she proves resilient and even adaptable, willing to learn and compromise rather than cling to an idea of what the world offer her:
No water this time, where he's decreed their evening rest. She was hoping for a pool. She badly wants to be clean again. It is a part of how she understands herself. This begrimed, lank-haired creature on a Bogu horse in Bogu clothes (the shirt is much too large and smells of animal fat) is not who, or what, Li-Mei considers herself to be.
She is aware that this is more and more inadequate as a way of thinking with every day that passes.
Seeking to rally her flagging spirits, she vows to "represent her father's bright, tall memory". She recalls, too, the example of several women she has encountered in her short life, among them Wen Jian, beguiling young Consort to the Emperor Taizu whose rise to influence at the imperial court has so thoroughly reshaped Kitan politics of late. "A woman could change the world", she reflects - a phrase that has more significance in terms of the larger story than is immediately apparent.
As Li-Mei notes, Wen Jian is the most obvious candidate for world-changer: she captivates an emperor and (it is rumoured) leads him to forget his duty in an obsession with discovering the secret of eternal life; moreover, the faction that comes to political power in her wake is an upstart, inexperienced one, which ends up destabilising the empire.
Jian's cousin Wen Zhou proves a weak and erratic prime minister, and a poor balance to Roshan, an ambitious general ("ferociously aggressive [...] uncouth and illiterate") with a huge provincial power base. For my purposes, he is also an example of patriarchal power in extremis, who combats feelings of inadequacy and insecurity in his political life by beating his servants ("amus[ing] yourself", as he puts it). Masculinity, in a hierarchal society like this, is about having power over others, and to reassure himself that he's a man, he needs to show it:
Zhou was inclined to disagree. If he wanted a woman or a horse, they were his until he grew tired of them. If he wanted a man dead he could have him killed. Why else be what he was? This came with power, defined it.
Wen Jian herself might be "like intoxication" to the male characters, but she never really emerges as a character rather than a talisman and an object for formulaic poetic praise; like the emperor, she is several grades of formality and beauty beyond anything Tai can relate to without awe. She is a character type familiar from Kay's other novels: the sharp-witted, breathtakingly beautiful woman whose glittering performances in both public and private almost hide the fact that she is essentially a caged bird, who has agency and autonomy only insofar as she remains pleasing to men, or a particular man. Talismanic and thus distant as she is here, though, she ends up being a rather blunt instrument for exploring this theme; there is barely a glimpse of the person beneath the glamour.
A better example of the type, on a slightly lower social strata, is the courtesan Spring Rain, a former paramour of Tai. Frustratingly, she functions in the story primarily as an object for Tai to pine over, but what little we see of her - both in his recollections of her, and in occasional scenes with the narrative's present - shows a woman who is both self-aware about the limits of her freedom, and less interested in protecting men's feelings on the matter. Tai remembers, for example, the way she chided him for not being politically wary enough:
"You need to think about these things."
"I could let you keep doing it for me?"
She stiffened, shifted. He regretted his words as soon as he'd spoken them.
"I am," Spring Rain said, "only a humble singing girl of the North District, hired by the hour or the night, owned by the proprietor of this house. It is in appropriate that one such as I be offered such a role. It is cruel to say so, even in jest."
This being fiction, of course, even after two years of his absence she thinks of him with almost as much misty-eyed affection as he does her, because apparently there's nothing more attractive than a naive young man who enjoys buying your attentive compliance and permits you to contradict him wittily and gently every now and then.
It is in the nature of the sort of society that Kay is evoking that women's roles in events - especially world-shaking political events - are circumscribed, and that they must win their status through carefully calculated appeal to men. It becomes a bit wearying, though, that we don't meet any ordinary women at all; Tai encounters a number of lower-class men on his travels, but the few women are all courtesans or daughters of the elite, and not one is less than strikingly pretty and focused like a laser-sight on the needs and wants of the men around her. This is where Li-Mei comes as such a relief: in her down-to-earth humanity, but above all in the fact that she has her own fears and dreams. Even if, ultimately, her agency too is limited to the influence she can have upon a man, of all the women in the novel Li-Mei is the one who really feels like someone with her own ambitions and goals, with an agenda in her own right. When the story leaves her to history, she has reached a point where she knows what she wants to do with that power-behind-the-throne influence - and looks like she might be able to enjoy it, too.
But the woman who changes the world, I would argue, is Cheng-wan. In gifting the horses to Tai, Cheng-wan is giving someone the tools to save Li-Mei from the fate she suffered - and, in so doing, she sparks a civil war that overthrows her father. Looked at one way, the whole story is a daughter's elaborate act of revenge - the marriage pawn using what power she has gained to sow chaos in an unstable empire.
Any new Kay novel is an event to be savoured, and Under Heaven is a fine addition to the canon: as I said above, it feels like the perfect match between author and subject. Turning T'ang China into Kitai allows Kay to explore his favourite themes and use his characteristic narrative techniques in a way that feels organic to the setting; even his love of foreshadowing has a strong cultural context, in the attention paid to omens and the heavy use of hindsight by its historians. But I found reading the novel a curious experience, at times. The very formal, controlled characters - and their equally formal environment - coupled with the tendency to pull back from the pivotal plot moments and adopt a historian's eye view of things, especially towards the end, meant that while I was lost in admiration at the skill and cleverness on display, I was also very conscious of that cleverness. I found myself distanced from the emotion of the story, to a degree that is unusual within my experience of reading Kay. It's not simply that I didn't cry (not once!), it's that this world and its people never quite lodged in my heart with the urgency of Tigana or The Lions of al-Rassan.
I'm rambled plenty; over to Vicky.
Before I begin it is best to say that I finished reading Under Heaven nearly six months ago now, and inevitably my impressions of it have fuzzed at the edges. I can't offer Nic's detailed exposition (I certainly don't have her extraordinary memory); rather, a series of disconnected observations, and general impressions.
Reading the first fifty pages of the book - entranced and giddy - I was overwhelmed with a sense of relief: I thought, here is the Kay I have known and loved. The grand sweep, the foreshadowing, the intense sensibility of the writing, all served to convince me that Under Heaven was a strong return to the stylistic ground that Kay left behind after the Sarantine Mosaic duology. I enjoyed and greatly admired The Last Light of the Sun and Ysabel, in their way, but both felt to me like acts of experimentation gone somewhat awry. I read them as the work of a writer in the throes of disengagement from his past works; a writer trying to move beyond the groove he'd worn deep, When I wrote about Ysabel for Strange Horizons I suggested that it represented the end of something for Kay as a novelist, a stroke of his pen that completed a thematic cycle he began with the Fionavar Tapestry over thirty years ago. I interpreted the book as a knot tied at the end of a thread; and I anticipated that what came after would be different, or would at least look different.
Under Heaven sounds, plots and reads like another first-class alternate history novel by GGK; all the bright show is right there on display. The prose is almost appalling beautiful, constantly on that rope-wire between sentimentality and emotionality that Kay loves to walk end to end without falling. It has his trade-mark syncopation, and poetic rhythm, and force of imagery. As Nic has already observed, style, form and historical setting are almost perfectly synthesised in the book, to the extent that one wonders whether Guy Kay wrote Under Heaven or it wrote him. But, but, but. The effect is so overwhelming that it glutted this reader: too much beauty, too much acute poetry, too much exquisite sadness. And yes, even too much of that marvellously clever dialogue that Kay is so renowned for. The wit and verbal acuity of Tai, his allies and his enemies as the narrative unfolds is freighted to death with meaning, and occasionally opaque.
What am I trying to say? Essentially, I think that Under Heaven is so gorgeously done, so harmonious and true to its historical parallels, that it lacks a certain freeness of spirit. It embodies its artificial conceit to the extent that I can't connect with it. It makes for an enormously successful exercise in world-building, but for less of a satisfying novel about characters; because the artificiality of Kitai, the sheer dazzling lie of it, can't help but rub off on the people that move through it. Which is why the sections of the novel which take place outside of the tightly woven web of the imperial bureaucracy - Tai in Kuala Nor, and Li-Mei in the Bogu steppes to the north - come as such blessed relief. It is only in these places that the characters can breathe, and engage in simple exchanges of thought and feeling. The rest feel like reflections in a perfect glass (or shadows in the cave).
The dynamics of the plot suffer from the tyranny (I don't mean this as harshly as it sounds) of the style too, I think. Nic has noted the Deus Ex Machina of the gift of the horses that propels Tai to dangerous fame, but this is only the first in a number of coincidences, contrivances, unexpected meetings and unlikely love affairs that shift the book forward. The ending is a surprise, but more because it feels unearned than anything else. Kay has always relied to a greater or lesser extent on such things, and has used foreshadowing to great effect to hide it, but Under Heaven is different from his earlier novels in that the plot serves the style utterly and completely. It is the subjugation of the will of the author and his characters to the demands of the world, and shows the complex relationship (particularly in fantasy novels) between character and environment. Ordinarily it is the environment that alienates the reader, while the characters draw them in close, and thereby reconcile the disconnect; in Under Heaven the characters are as alienating as the world they move through. The disconnect prevails to the very end. It is the epitome of the fantasy ideal on the one hand, and a self-defeating exercise on the other.
It showcases Kay the thinker and the philosopher-historian rather than Kay the novelist. This is nowhere more evident than in the passages of the book that are devoted to the theory of history and the place of fiction in it. Under Heaven opens, unexpectedly, with a foreword-cum-apologia on the subject of alternate history vs. historical fiction, a theme to which the last 100 pages of the novel returns again:
...truth when examining events and records of the past was always precarious, uncertain. No man could say for certain how the river of time would have flowed, cresting or receding, bringing floods or gently watering fields, had a single event, or even many, unfolded differently. It is in the nature of existence under heaven, the dissenting scholars wrote, that we cannot know these things with clarity. We cannot live twice, or watch the moment of the past unfurl, like a courtesan's silk fan.
It can hardly be an accident that the title of the book is rooted in this passage, because the anxiety implicit in writing about history seems to be what the novel is, finally, about. It has always seemed to me that the central, psychological tension of Kay's work lies in his relationship to history and the past. His moral determination not to write about 'true' historical incidents, figures and places is belied by his repeated return to alternate historical settings and his tendency to mirror the stylistics of his chosen milieu to such an extent that we end with a hyper-real representation of it. I have always sensed conflict in this dichotomy: not to be a historical novelist but, conversely, to be better at historical fiction than any novelist before.
Under Heaven brings these issues to a head. Kitai is not Tang China, Kay says. Or rather, it isn't Tang China the second time around - Kay is absolutely clear, this is not a retelling, or a reimagining of our historical past. This is the original: it is Tang China, but the first time around, and it is called Kitai. In this sense he is and is not a historical novelist; he is and is not an alternate historical novelist. It is not just a matter of being inspired by something; or changing some names, or not wanting to make presumptions about the thought patterns of men long, long dead; it is all about a pure, aching yearning towards an impossible truth. Nic called Under Heaven Kay's arrival at the Platonic form, and I think she's right. It perfectly encapsulates the conflict between shadows and forms, what is real and what is not real, the history we have and the history we can make.
Can such self-conscious styling and philosophising alone a novel make? The answer is, of course, yes and no. Under Heaven is a great novel, and a strange novel, and a novel I cannot love, but admire furiously. Whatever else can be said about Kay, and whether this is his best, worst or most indifferent book (I feel I could make an argument on all counts), Under Heaven shows a prodigious mind at work and is worth every effort. My handwritten reading notes on it end with a two word sentence: 'Must re-read'.