(photo credit: Yan Liben)
In a world of poetry and romance, warfare and death, Canadian author Guy Gavriel
Kay weaves a magnificent epic based on the history of China’s Tang dynasty.
Kay’s accustomed modus operandi of crafting his own world based on historical
periods has led to explorations of medieval Italy, Provence, Spain and England,
as well as ancient Byzantium. This is the author’s first foray into Asia, but
Under Heaven is vintage Kay, comprising a cast of complex characters, a rich
cultural backdrop and language to break the heart.
The story begins with
a day in the life of Shen Tai, a poet and student, who has committed two years
to digging graves at the site of a horrific battle, laying to rest the ghosts
that haunt the site. For his sacrifice, a foreign princess honors him with a
gift so tremendous, it can change the face of his country’s political reality –
As the story unfolds, the land of Kitai, with its deadly
intrigues, scented courtesans and rich traditions of poetry and music, is
swiftly brought to life. Simultaneously, it becomes clear that there is more to
Tai than first meets the eye, for rivalries – romantic and familial – hover in
his past; and now these loom with greater importance than before, because they
no longer concern only him. Tai’s love for a woman coveted by one of the most
powerful men in the country will have consequences that ripple outward, as will
his adversarial relationship with his brother.
But even greater than
Tai’s individual story is the powerful current of history as it is felt within
the narrative, sweeping the land of Kitai to the brink of change – and
ultimately, into tragedy.
Like medieval China, Kitai is a land of
exquisite formality, where the protocols of the court carry layers of meaning,
and where politicians at the highest levels are adept at crafting poetry within
moments. It is also a land where women serve a secondary role, as they did
throughout the world in the medieval period. Yet perhaps because the women of
Kitai are forced to exert their power in subtle ways, the female characters in
are some of the most complex. There is the courtesan who masks her
political savvy by day while engaging in intrigues by night; the princess sold
into a marriage of convenience who still has dreams for herself; and finally,
the woman who entrances the emperor beyond reason and thus upsets the balance of
the Kitan empire.
The language used to tell this story is a large part of
its richness. The culture of Kitai is one of linguistic nuance, where the
emperor’s court, which is seen as the center of the world, is a place of
intricate exchanges and spontaneous poetry, and the language of the novel
reflects this reality.
It is language that is also well-suited for the
operatic tragedies of the final scenes, an emotional crescendo as painful as the
knife that is featured in one of them. Under Heaven
is as much an
experience as it is a story, a visceral depiction of history at its most brutal,
and its most beautiful.