Though I enjoy reading about magic, I must admit to remaining within the narrow range of medieval, epic, and high fantasy prose based in Western lore. So I’ve read the mainstream bestsellers like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, Terry Brooks’ Shannara, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
Yet I’ve grown restless. Can you identify with this? That undeniable need to escape from Middle-earth?
If so, read the 2010 American Library Association Best Fantasy Novel: Under Heaven. It’s amazing.
Guy Gavriel Kay abandons the Euro-centric mythology he infused in his own bestselling Fionavar Tapestry, finding inspiration instead from the Tang Dynasty of eighth-century China. I admit to complete ignorance about this time and place, but Kay gives the reader an effortless understanding of the politics, the customs, and the institutions while infusing his own magical imagination. Yet it’s not the supernatural that is mesmerizing. Instead, it’s horses, poetry, and philosophy. Seriously!
When it comes to horses, the Anglo-Saxon tradition has dominated my reading pleasure. I get a thrill at how the Horse Lords of Rohan use their gallant steeds to go up against the wildest and ugliest of demonic creatures. And if the common equine is not faced with fantastical evil, then I enjoy how Western myth transforms the horse into a unicorn, or applies a set of Pegasus wings. Yet Kay’s “Heavenly Horses” do not follow this paradigm. And I found myself enjoying the idea of them more than the immortal horses of the sun-god Helios, the fire-breathing horses of the war god Ares, or the fish-tailed horses of the sea god Poseidon. I credit Kay for enticing me with well-bred horses as the object of desire. Unlike the Trojan War which is fought over Helen (leading the Greeks to get past Troy’s walls in that most famous horse), Kay’s horses are the ones so treasured they could tear an empire apart.
Moreover, I am struck not only by the horses, but with the cultural significance of poetry. In his acknowledgments at the end of the book, Kay states, “My gateway to Tang China was by way of the master poets of the dynasty: Du Fu, Li Bai (the ‘Banished Immortal’), Wang Wei, Bai Juyi, and so many others.” I’d never, until now, conceived of a poet as a protagonist, as one of a fellowship on a quest. I do not recall the friendship of the Hobbits or the Fellowship of the Ring having to prove themselves in the equivalent of a poetry slam, but this is a requisite skill in Under Heaven. And why not? Kay elevates poetry to its proper place in fantasy. After all, the author of the Iliad and Odyssey, two of the great epic foundations of Western classical literary tradition, were written by an ancient Greek poet - Homer.
And finally, there’s the Eastern philosophy of balance. Again, this is a critical admission of my ignorance, but I did not know the profound influence it could have on an entire society. Or even more surprising, how an author could make balance active in his prose. When the viewpoint character is a male, there is the past tense of “was.” But with a female, I noticed “is” and “are.” And when a courtesan (more or less a sex slave) is presented as a love interest, that is balanced by a Kanlin woman (the equivalent of a ninja) also as a love interest. Subjugation balanced by independence. Ever evolving shifts in this balance allow for a courtesan to achieve independence, and a Kanlin to subject herself to desire. Incredible. I didn’t notice this yin and yang. Kay does not make it obvious, and yet he does.
I loved this book. I’d hate to share more since doing so would spoil the experience for those who have not read it. I believe Under Heaven is another novel by Guy Gavriel Kay that makes the reader ask, “How is he ever going to top this?” Read it and tell me I’m wrong.
By Mark Schelske