Finely crafted China

In his first foray into Asia, Guy Gavriel Kay brings the Tang dynasty to life.

311_Tang Dynasty (photo credit: Yan Liben)
311_Tang Dynasty
(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 – and does.
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 Under Heaven 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.