I totally thought this book was going to be about horses. I was wrong. But Kay, a historical fantasist, made it more than worth my while. He takes those horses and shoves them to the distant background, making them simply a vehicle for an epic story about the channels carved by political power and the spectrum of people who navigate them. Moreover, he sets that drama amidst a world very concretely inspired by the rich, nuanced tapestry of 8th century Tang Dynasty China.
This is not the kind of story that I normally gravitate toward, but Kay's storytelling ability and his mastery of language and detail kept me enthralled.
Although there are multiple points of view represented in Under Heaven, the main character is Shen Tai, second son of a renowned general of the empire of Kitai. Tai has spent the last two years by himself on the outskirts of civilization burying the remains of the war-dead from both Kitai and its neighboring enemy to the west, Tagur.
As reward for his labors, he learns that Tagur wishes to bestow him with 250 magnificent Sardian horses. Coming from a country that must make do with the stubby horses of the steppes, Tai realizes this is a gift that defies all sense of scope and proportion.
Two hundred and fifty Sardian horses, Tai was thinking, from within the sandstorm of his forever-altered life. Being brought by him to a court, an empire, that gloried in every single dragon steed that had ever reached them from the west. That dreamed of those horses with so fierce a longing, shaping porcelain and jade and ivory in their image, linking poets’ words to the thunder of mythic hooves.It goes without saying that Tai will donate them to the empire's cause. He sets out on one of those Sardian steeds for the Kitan capital to first bring the news to the emperor before he goes to collect his reward from Tagur. His newfound wealth has not gone unnoticed, though, and after a failed assassination attempt on his life, Tai hires the Kanlin warrior Wei Song to ensure he makes it alive to court.
Nevertheless, the Tagurans’ gift sets in motion an inexorable slide toward war as we see the ruling factions at court jockey for dominance. We see the submissive role women are largely relegated to and how the clever ones and the determined ones manage to still shape and influence their fate as well as that of the empire's.
Kay brings the world of Kitai life with breathtaking lyricism and studied research. The details don't overwhelm but rather effortlessly flesh out social constructs and culture. His characters, too, are never one-dimensional. We see them as complex beings with foibles, fears, ambitions and strengths. For added measure, he even throws in a dose of the supernatural in a seamless way that doesn’t distract from the story.
Under Heaven was a wonderful introduction to Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay and a welcome reminder that it sometimes pays off to venture outside your reading comfort zone. Even if it does mean judging a book by its cover.