Under Heaven | Guy Gavriel Kay

Reading Under Heaven is like taking a visit to 8th Century China. Kay’s scholarship on the period is so thorough it seemed like I could almost smell the air and hear the din of the Tang Dynasty. This book took my estimation of Kay’s historical prowess up a notch. He had written a variety of books set in ancient European cultures. Changing gears and learning the culture of the ancient far East was a massive undertaking.

Kay’s style is even more finely developed here. He has a way of writing in the present tense that adds urgency to the prose (e.g. “A wind is blowing. It is cold. She is aware of the hard brilliance of the stars . . .” (199)). It’s no surprise he’s published poetry as well. His prose has a poetic flavour.

While this book is categorized as fantasy, fine literature is probably more appropriate. Unlike his first novels, the Fionavar Tapestry, there are only a few sparse fantastic elements here. This is a work of historical fiction that uses fantasy as a device to open up the minds of the characters. Earlier in my life this would have disappointed me. Not now.

The pacing of the work was interesting. For the first two thirds of the novel or so, we followed a character as he traveled to the city and got involved in court intrigue. Then, in the last third, a seasons flash by. It’s as if Kay pulled the camera back to show us the full lay of the historical landscape.

Now I’m hoping for more Tang Dynasty novels.

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