By Michael Dirda
Sunday, June 20, 2010; BW05
By Guy Gavriel Kay
Roc. 573 pp. $26.95
Guy Gavriel Kay's "Under Heaven" isn't quite historical fiction, nor is it quite fantasy. It's set in a slightly reimagined Tang dynasty China, sometimes seems reminiscent of films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and depicts the unimaginable consequences of a single generous gift. Most important of all, it is the novel you'll want for your summer vacation.
The young Shen Tai -- lapsed scholar, discharged army officer, onetime acolyte of the Kanlin warrior priesthood -- has spent two years burying the bones of the soldiers who fell at a great battle between Kitai (China) and the empire of Tagur (apparently Mongolia). His father commanded the Kitai forces at Kuala Nor and died, broken in spirit by the immense loss of life, some 40,000 men. As an act of expiation and mourning, Tai lives among the howling ghosts and properly inters their bleached bones, making no distinction between those of his people and the Tagurans.
As a result, Cheng-wan -- the White Jade Princess and wife of the Tagur ruler -- decides to honor this pious work by bestowing on Tai a gift of 250 Sardian horses, the so-called Heavenly Horses, animals of unparalleled beauty, swiftness and rarity.
As they say, every blessing is also a curse.
Not even the Kitai Emperor -- may he live forever -- possesses such a herd of Sardians. To acquire them, men would kill, prostitute their daughters, betray their masters. Such horses, after all, could determine the fate of battles, or even empires. On the very evening Tai receives notice of the White Jade Princess's unexpected largesse, he is the object of an assassination attempt.
Almost immediately, Tai's world, along with many of its established verities, begins to collapse, as the young man gradually realizes that he is now at the center of subtle political machinations at the Kitai Imperial Court. There his calculating older brother serves the new and insecure prime minister, who is also the man who stole Tai's beloved, the courtesan Spring Rain. There the hugely fat barbarian general, known as Roshan, lays his plans. There Wen Jian -- the greatest beauty of the age -- diverts the aged emperor, while playing dangerous games of her own.
To insure his life, Tai makes it widely known that he has left the horses with a friend in Tagur and they will be released to no one but himself. In the meantime, he slowly makes his way back to Xinan, the silken capital city of Kitai. As in any epic fantasy, Tai makes friends along the way. Spring Rain sends a black-clad Kanlin warrior to protect him. Her name is Wei Song, and at one point she fights six men, whirling silently in a courtyard, a sword in each hand. Tai meets The Banished Immortal, the poet Sima Zian (based on Li Bai, aka Li Po), always drunk, always wise in the ways of the world. These two and Spring Rain he can count on. Nobody else.
The milieu presented in "Under Heaven" is, on the surface, one of the most exquisite beauty and courtesy. Honor, right-thinking, decorum count. "Let fall your weapon. Doing so offers you a small chance of living. Otherwise there is none." But consummate graciousness may cloak the most immense cruelty. After would-be assassins are interrogated by a provincial general, Tai is told that the "two men, when encouraged to discuss their adventurism tonight, suggested only one name of possible significance before they each succumbed, sadly, to the exacting nature of the conversation." We later learn that one of these men "had been castrated, his organ stuffed in his mouth. His eyes had been carved out and they had cut off his hands."
Yet the world of "Under Heaven" is not only polite, Machiavellian and ruthless; it is also spooky. Ghosts can kill, female were-foxes seduce, shamans take control of a man's soul or employ swans to search for enemies. The Kanlin can speak the language of the wolves. Pledged to be married to a barbarian prince, Tai's sister Li-Mei finds herself taken to a cave by a zombie-like creature -- half-man, half-wolf. There she undergoes a mystical experience among what are clearly the ancient bronze statues now commonly known as the "Tang horses." Her destiny will be as strange as that of her two older brothers.
Indeed, Li-Mei and the other women of "Under Heaven" are its most memorable characters. Wei Song obviously feels more for Tai than is proper to a disciplined Kanlin warrior. The resolute Spring Rain risks everything for her former lover: "Why, and how, does one voice, one person, come to conjure vibrations in the soul, like an instrument tuned? Why a given man, and not another, or a third?" Why, indeed? "She hasn't nearly enough wisdom to answer that. She isn't sure if anyone does." And then there's Wen Jian.
She dominates the page as she does any room she enters. Kay makes you feel the power and breathtaking seductiveness of this 21-year-old beauty, who can treat the brutal Roshan like a giant baby, who views the world as her plaything, who is convincingly the kind of woman for whom an ordinary man might sacrifice his life or for whom an emperor might throw away his kingdom. At one point, Wen Jian makes a surprise visit to Tai at an inn. An altercation ensues. Wen Jian is not amused.
" 'It was uncivilized. There was violence in my presence, which is never permitted.' She lifted her hand from his leg. 'I have instructed my under-steward to kill himself when we reach Ma-wai.'
"Tai blinked, wasn't sure he had heard correctly.
" 'You . . . he . . . ?'
" 'This morning,' said the Beloved Companion, 'did not proceed as I wished it to. It made me unhappy.' Her mouth turned downward.
"You could drown in this woman, Tai thought, and never be found again. The emperor was pursuing immortality in the palace, men said, using alchemists and the School of Unrestricted Night, where they studied the stars and asterisms in the sky for secrets of the world. Tai suddenly had a better understanding of that desire."
Guy Gavriel Kay is a much honored Canadian writer of historical fantasy, perhaps best known for the three-part "Fionavar Tapestry" and for "Tigana" and "A Song for Arbonne." As a young man, he assisted Christopher Tolkien in editing J.R.R. Tolkien's epic "The Silmarillion." For "Under Heaven" Kay has chosen a spare, slightly courtly style, but nonetheless moves his plot along at a rapid clip. At the same time, he continually thickens his novel with appealing minor characters, thus adding to the story's overall richness as well as suggesting that much else is going on just outside our narrative field of vision. As Kay's historian-like narrator observes:
"Every single tale carries within it many others, noted in passing, hinted at, entirely overlooked. Every life has moments when it branches, importantly (even if only for one person), and every one of those branches will have offered a different story."
"Under Heaven" ends where it began, among ghosts. Everything quietly, ineluctably fades into history, as into those mists one sees on Chinese scroll paintings. Besides, all these myriad wonders and struggles and heartbreaks occurred a long time ago, in a world that never actually existed -- until now.
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