Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay: Blending Fantasy and History

On the cover of my Penguin edition of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Under Heaven is a little circular stamp that reveals that it made the Globe and Mail’s top 100 books. It must be understood that these books do NOT just include fantasy literature! This book has proven a better read in the eyes of the Globe and Mail than many thousands of other books published that are more mainstream in subject matter. Kay has scored big time by achieving this. He is an author who blends genres. The historical fantasy hybrid novel that emerges proves to be superior to other works of fantasy literature. With good reason. The story is very powerful.

Under Heaven tells the story of the consequences of a gift. A Sardian horse in the empire of Ninth Dynasty Kitai, a land based on Tang Dynasty China, is a gift that can greatly honour an individual. Superior to other Kitan horses, these Heavenly Horses must be imported from beyond a merciless desert across the Silk Road. When Shen Tai, the Second Son of the general Shen Gao, buries the bones of the dead slain during a terrible battle, he is gifted with no fewer than 250 of these supremely valued horses, an extravagant gift from the Princess of Tagur, Chen-Wang.

The world could bring you poison in a jeweled cup, or surprising gifts. Sometimes you didn’t know which of them it was. This quote from the book becomes the mantra defining Tai’s perilous situation. The horses are his, and he must choose what to do with them. He is going to get sucked away from his solitude in Kuala Nor into the ‘gold and jade’ of the court of Kitai.

By now the motif of ‘the decadent court’ is a staple of Kay novels, and he has honed it to perfection. The tension invoked in such court scenes keep you at the edge of your seat even though there may be no physical action. People use words as weapons, and the game is all about reading faces to discern motivations. Tai is an upstart at court and is being placed in a position of considerable danger, so he will have to use his observational skills to their best advantage. Honestly, if we had time travel, a reader of Guy Gavriel Kay could train in the ways of court life by reading his novels and then go to the sixteenth century and rise to a high station in Elizabethan England. Just about. Take time to read these scenes. So much tension is invoked that it is a model about how to write dialogue effectively.

Moderate spoiler alert for next three paragraphs.

Without giving too much away, there is a divisive feud between two high-ranking officials in the world of the court. The 250 horses complicates that. But one day, rebellion breaks–the Rebellion, as it turns out–and Guy Gavriel Kay writes the following line: “historians, without exception, appeared to join in accepting the number of forty million lives as a reasonable figure for the consequences of the An Li Rebellion” (529).

You read that and then you think, “Oh, $!%@.” And you read on. You have to. Because civilization is going downhill and you can enjoy the ride.

Aside from depicting court life tension and intrigue, the thing that Kay does particularly well is depicting the collapse and changing of civilizations. This puts Kay’s novel on an epic scope. He adds dignity to the genre of epic fantasy by bringing in the historical. Many failures of epic fantasy miss the dignity behind Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which comes from the tragic scope of the Elves leaving Middle Earth, the fall of the race of Men from the glory of Numenor, and Frodo’s symbolic death. Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy, finds a closer kin in Guy Gavriel Kay, who keeps the tragic elements. Truth be told, reading the last chapters of Under Heaven is like watching a train-wreck in slow motion (anyone ever see Meet the Fockers? Another kind of train-wreck…). But it was a good train-wreck, and who knew just watching civilization collapse into chaos could be so entertaining! Not to mention strongly disturbing, seeing as the rebellion’s creation of a wide famine results in the appearance of cannibalism. I might add, however, that the ending is optimistic. I am not lying: I actually almost cried in one of the final scenes, and I do not cry at movies, let alone books.

No more spoilers!

As an English student, I will be analyzing all of Kay’s novels in my Honours thesis. I find provocative the fact that Kay includes some sections of his book devoted to telling how future Kitai will make sense of the events that occur in his book. No other Kay book, to my knowledge, really has that explicit a dealing with history, though all of his books deal with history in some capacity.

Keep alert of a possible (but only in the discussion-phase) movie deal for Under Heaven. It will be a wicked Chinese movie like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or at least it could be. I can seriously see that coming about. Whatever movie they make of this book, if any at all, will be awesome.

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