Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest, Under Heaven, is one of his longest, I think, weighing in at almost 600 pages, and although I finished it last night I was so sad to see it end that I might very well start it again tonight.
I have loved Guy Gavriel Kay since college, when a friend introduced me to The Fionavar Tapestry. My favorite by Kay is still, and always, Tigana — but this latest one comes awfully close to taking over that favored place in my heart.
Under Heaven is Kay’s take on Tang Dynasty China. The story follows a likable young male protagonist, Shen Tai, from an isolated, haunted lake in the remote mountains to the glittering capital city.
All the usual Kay motifs are spun out in this book. Love, loss, memory, music, poetry, war. There’s even a paragraph near the end of the book that pretty much summarizes the Kay oeuvre; the song he sings throughout each of his books:
Branching paths. The turning of days and seasons and years. Life offered you love sometimes, sorrow often. If you were very fortunate, true friendship. Sometimes war came.
I know some people feel like Kay tells only slightly different versions of the same story in most of his books.
To them, I can only say: Duh.
Of course, that’s true; Kay is a huge fan of Joseph Campbell, whose lifework consisted of examining and illuminating the common threads — and fascinating variations — across the spectrum of human mythologies.
His whole point is that most of our stories, myths, fireside tales, songs, and rhymes, all tell versions of the same stories, with varying degrees of similarities. How these stories differ, and how they mirror each other — that’s what interesting.
Kay’s repeated theme is exactly that — that there are repeated themes worth noticing in human cultures. In his universe, Fionavar is the central world, and all other worlds are echoes, shadows, or reverberations of that core reality. (If you haven’t yet read his books, you should probably start with Tigana, because it’s so good, but then go back to The Fionavar Tapestry, because it’s here that he lays down the groundwork for all his other books. You’ll get a lot more of his little inside jokes with the reader if you’ve read Tapestry before reading all the rest.)
I happen to love his view of reality, and how he chooses to explore it. I’m a huge fan of repetition and ritual (and clearly, so is he), and I’ll admit to secretly holding some pretty damn unorthodox views about the nature of reality, history, and what happens when we die. Or, more precisely, after we die.
And I’d say Kay comes pretty close to nailing those for me, as well.
He also seems to be fascinated by the same cultures as I am, and the same periods of time. Medieval Provence, Early Renaissance Italy, first century China… each story told with careful attention to the particular cultural truths of that place and time, but each story still reinforcing the universals, each story echoing the music at the core.
He’s also mellowed a bit, I think, and has worked out some of his more recognizable literary tics, like his tendency to refer to at least one male character as being of “middling” height, or to describe someone reacting to a potentially erotic moment with a “diffident” shrug.
Whatever with your diffident shrugs, Kay. Get back to the only-thinly fictionalized folk tales and forgotten myths. I love that shit.
The last one by Kay, Ysabel, was fun, and actually kind of sexy, but it was a mere canape compared to the meal that is Under Heaven. Sort of how A Song for Arbonne feels like a lighthearted romp after reading Tigana.
So: Under Heaven. I loved it. It is a damn fine story, beautifully and entertainingly told. And I swallowed it whole in about 48 hours.
What’s for dessert?