By Guy Gavriel Kay
“The Son of Heaven cannot be wrong”
Shen Tai page 317
Guy Gavriel Kay, born in 1954 in Saskatchewan Canada, is a writer who is not as well known as he should be in many ways. While understated he had a great influence on the fantasy genre. For example, when Christopher Tolkien (the son of JRR Tolkien) needed help editing his father's unfinished works, he selected Mr. Kay who at the time was studying philosophy at the University of Manitoba. While the Tolkiens were the writers of the work (Christopher Tolkien would put in a lot of work turning his father's unfinished work into something that could be read and understood), to declare that Mr. Kay had no influence on the work at all would be foolish. If that was all he did we could safely declare that he had influenced the genre, but he wasn't done yet. When he was finished with that task in 1975 he returned to his native Canada and completed a law degree at the University of Toronto, and was called to the bar of Ontario in 1981. He would restart his writing career by becoming the principle writer for the Canadian radio drama Scales of Justice. In 1984 his first novel The Summer Tree was released, with our current review Under Heaven being released in 2010 and he continues to this day. Mr. Kay has won acclaim in the field, being awarded the Prix Aurora Award in 1987, the White Pine award in 2007, the World Fantasy Award in 2008, the International Goliardos Award, the Sunburst award for the book we're reviewing here and in 2014 he was awarded the Order of Canada. Mr. Kay primarily likes to write in fantasy versions of historical times and places, not in the way many other writers do but by choosing specific times and events in history and focusing on those. This is something that a number of North American writers have done like Robert Howard, although what Mr. Kay does is a bit different and shows more devotion to scholarly research.
In this case Under Heaven is set in the 9th Dynasty of the Empire of Kitai, a fantastical version of the Tang dynasty empire of China, which in our world is regarded as a golden age for China in many ways. It is however, a sad truth of our world that golden ages end. Before this book began, there was a war fought between Kitai and the Empire of Tagur (Tibet sort of). The war ended in the battle of Kuala Nor, a massive battle in a mountain valley with a beautiful lake that claimed the lives of over 40,000 people. The battle was such a shock to both empires that peace was made and sealed by the marriage of the Tagur Emperor to a Kitai princess. Many years late the Kitai general who fought that battle died. In Kitai unless an active member of the government or the military, a man must withdraw from society for 2 and a half years to mourn and perform the required rituals. Our main character Shen Tai, the 2nd son of this general did more than that. He went to Kuala Nor, now a ghost haunted field of horror and story and dwelt there among the angry ghosts and regrets, finding the bones of the soldiers of both nations and burying them. This story spread across boundaries and borders until it reached the Princess sold to the foreign Emperor, who enjoined her husband to make a gift to Shen Tai. The Emperor does so, making a gift of 250 Sardian horses. Now, Kitai is rich in men, in learning, silk, rice, grain and gold; but it is poor in horses. Sardia on the other hand raises the greatest horses in the world, fast and graceful, tireless and strong. That many Sardian horses is not just enough wealth to make a man a billionaire by our standards but to gives him the ability to create a fearsome military force that can shift the balance of power across the Empire. Shen Tai, a man who had a short and somewhat odd military career and studied in the capital but never passed the examinations needed to hold civil office is now thrust into the center of the intrigues of the Kitai empire. Because there are people who will kill him to get at those horses, people who will kill him to keep anyone else from getting those horses and people who simply want to kill him but can't because of those horses. Meanwhile Shen Tai has his own concerns because he learns as he returns to civilization that his little sister Shen Li-Mei has been adopted into the imperial family, declared an official princess of the empire and given in marriage to the heir of the throne of nomadic empire to the north. To make matters worse, the man who might have masterminded it is his elder brother Shen Liu. Who is now the principal advisor to the First Minister of the Empire, Wen Zhou. To throw even more trouble onto the scales, before Shen Tai left to the margins of the world, Wen Zhou was a rival for the affections of a woman, a courtesan who used the name Spring Rain. He does have allies however; a Kanlin warrior (mystical warrior elites who work for hire) named Wei Song, hired by Spring Rain to protect him at all costs. The famed drunken poet, Sima Zian called the banished immortal and friends from beyond the bounds of the empire that he never meet but who work to protect him and his family nonetheless.
With a grudge against his brother and an unresolved feud with the man running the most powerful empire in the world Shen Tai rides into the very heart of their power in the capital. He is protected by the fact that the horses can only be delivered to him and he needs to be alive for that to happen. He is also protected by the fact that the Empire is on a knife's edge and his horses could make the difference one way or another. Shen Tai is not the only person that First Minister Wen Zhou has decided to have a feud with. In recent decades the rulers of the Empire felt it was safer to select barbarian generals to lead their armies and guard their borders (This is never never a good idea!). One such general is Roshan, also called An Li, who now leads three armies in the North East and governs a trio of districts. He is militarily speaking the single most powerful man in the empire, feared and hated by First Minister Wen Zhou. In turn Roshan believes First Minister Wen Zhou to be a threat to himself and his sons. Before the belief was that barbarians could not gather enough support to overthrow Emperors. For decades this has held true but now the Emperor is old. The Emperor is old, distracted, and besotted with a new young consort; a young woman who was supposed to be married to one of the Emperor's many sons. But once the Emperor laid his eyes on her... well, he felt he could always find his son another wife. So a young woman named Wen Jian, young enough to be the Emperor's granddaughter, finds herself having to balance the empire, because the First Minister Wen Zhou is her cousin and An Li is a friend and favorite of hers. If she can keep them in balance and prevent them from trying to openly kill each other, she can keep the Empire together. Because she is a woman, she cannot do so openly but must constantly work behind the scenes, influencing men, whispering to the Emperor and making everything look like she's a silly young girl to keep the court from deciding to get rid of her because she's a woman who is getting above her place. She can do that however and she can keep doing it as long as needed. As long as no one upsets that balance of power. As long as no one does anything stupid out of fear of that balance being upset.
Mr. Kay presents us a world of wealth and privilege, soaked in luxury and wine. A world wrapped in ritual and outlined in poetry. Through his story we are shown a fantasy version of a golden age and we are shown how it all ends. These events, while not shoved to the side, are not the focus of the book however, instead the focus remains on a family drama and a personal feud between two men that frankly could be called tawdry if it took place under any other circumstances. The action is fairly understated in this book, while there are battles and sword fights the primary work is on the intrigue, character conflict, internal character motivations, drives, and the forces that limit them. For example Spring Rain, who once worked as a courtesan and is now a concubine to Wen Zhou is limited because of her gender and her station but still acts as much as she can, often risking her life to achieve her goals. Wen Jian, whose station is more exalted in some ways is even more limited in what she can do than Spring Rain and for both of them the limits placed on their gender force them to constantly work through others and use indirect means in what I can only imagine to be a maddening way to work. The men in this book are also limited. Shen Tai is limited by the rituals of the court and the intricate laws that govern his society. Laws that say that he cannot even declare what was done to his sister an injustice or openly express his rage that his sister has been exiled to live in savagery by her own brother without a so much as a by your leave because to do so would be rebellion against the Emperor and the Heavens itself. It's that observed limitation that led me to chose the quote that starts this review, because frankly if someone could have challenged the Emperor on his behavior, I can't help but think much of this could have been avoided. I suppose one of the lessons we should take away from this novel and the Tang dynasty it is based on is that you should never deify someone while they're still around to enjoy their godhood. Because there's nothing more dangerous than a person who decides that everyone around them is right and they are a god on earth.
I'll be honest and admit that intrigue and heavy dramas aren't usually my cup of tea but this book held my interest as if I was caught in a steel trap. Shen Tai is protagonist that you can identify with pretty easily and he has goals you can't help but be sympathetic to: get his sister back, resolve his feuds with his brother and Wen Zhou, and don't die. You can also feel for his allies as they are often exasperated by his stubborn insistence on provoking the powerful and not admitting to the danger he is often in. What's interesting is that our antagonists, while not likable, are understandable and at times sympathetic as well. I can fully understand what drives Wen Zhou against the Barbarian general An Li, or why that general feels increasingly threatened and pushed against the wall. Some of the characters may come off as short sighted or foolish but they don't come off as cackling villains which makes the story feel more realistic even if you can clearly point at some of them and say “This person is in the wrong here.” Because of this I give Under Heaven By Guy Gavriel Kay an A. Give it a peek and I think you'll find a book you'll enjoy.
Next week we end the year with Persephone by Allison Shaw. Keep Reading!