The beginning of "Under Heaven," the latest offering by award-winning Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay, can be called deceptive: it is quiet, seen through the eyes of a contemplative young poet on the shores of a remote mountain lake. But Shen Tai, the protagonist in this novel inspired by Tang Dynasty China, is much more than first meets the eye, and the lake is full of ghosts.
Site of a horrific battle in which Tai's father served, thousands of fallen dead lie unburied by the lake at Kuala Nor. By spending two years digging graves to honor the memory of his recently deceased father, Tai grants peace to restless spirits. For his sacrifice, a princess sees fit to reward Tai beyond anyone's imagining--and changes his life forever.
Thus begins a magnificent epic, flawlessly crafted, that draws the reader in like a whirlwind and doesn't let go. Like Kay's previous novels, "Under Heaven" works on multiple levels at once: it is, among other things, a meditation on the forces of history, an exploration of the way in which art can influence our perception of the world--and vice versa--and a paean to the intertwined glory and tragedy of the human experience. It is also a suspenseful adventure that includes a dazzling cast of characters and plenty of violence, intrigue, sex and betrayal, compelling the reader to keep turning pages far into the night--and to keep plenty of tissues ready to hand.
With power thrust upon him, Tai is forced away from the quiet lake, towards the teeming grandeur of the capital city, where an emperor has shaped the greatest civilization the country has known in thousands of years, and perhaps in the world. Kitai is a land of unparalleled complexity: of court officials exquisitely trained in the skills of intrigue, poetry and philosophy, of glittering courtesans playing music into the night over spiced wine, of black-clad warriors who practice impregnable martial arts on their mountain. And beyond stretch the plains, peopled by nomadic tribes and permeated with an ancient magic.
As the story proceeds, the innumerable layers of Kitai unfold to the reader; and in parallel, so does the character of Tai, whose past will play as much a role in the future of Kitai as the princess's life-changing gift. In his own life, Tai has grappled with loss and with the historic devastation of warfare; these emotions, experienced on a private scale, both mirror and set the stage for the large-scale catastrophes that are about to overtake an empire.
This contrast of the personal and the universal, as if viewing the same story through both ends of a telescope, is repeated in more overt ways later on: the story shifts from an intensely vivid, on-the-ground depiction of heartbreaking events to recounting how the historians of Kitai will record and debate these events in hundreds of years' time. Juxtaposing an intimately human tragedy with larger questions of history makes the tragedy all the more shattering, because it becomes so clear that these huge events and beloved characters are ultimately so small and transitory "amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust" of life as it churns relentlessly on and incorporates everything into (flawed, poorly recorded) memory.
The novels of Guy Gavriel Kay combine history with elements of the fantastic and are difficult to categorize--they are not historical fiction, but can't be easily pigeonholed as genre fantasy. The fantastic elements are rare - at times even nonexistent - and serve to highlight and explore themes. In the case of "Under Heaven," the limited but extremely dangerous appearance of magic is a reminder that the dark mysteries of the world are ever-present, even in a place as perfectly ordered as the Kitan empire; that life is a perpetual mystery even after thousands of years of philosophers and historians analyzing its vagaries. It's true that all the magic occurs at the periphery of Kitan civilization - by the lake and on the wild plains - which indicates that while intellectual sophistication cannot rationalize these mysteries away, it can preserve the illusion of their extinction.
As a longtime reader of Kay's novels, I've gone on to engage in such 21st century fan activities as volunteer for the discussion forums of Kay's official site, Brightweavings. So take that into account when you read this, although I'd describe myself less as biased than as particularly voracious in how I approach Kay's books: They mean a lot to me, and I expect a lot from them. But "Under Heaven" serves as a reminder that even a longtime reader can still be surprised by Kay, who brings new gifts, unlooked for, when the "usual" would have been more than enough to satisfy.