As I finished Under Heaven about
two four weeks ago this review is a little late. This might be excused by the fact that I read it while on vacation in southern Thailand, with internet access a low priority.
Anyway, this carefully wrought story marks Kay’s return to epic storytelling, and a return to story not overly embellished with fantastical elements. Both are plus’, in my book, which means I think this is his best book since The Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium & Lord of Emperors) – it is no secret that I thought both Last Light of the Sun and Ysabel to be inferior works from an author of such great capacity as Kay.
On to the actual book –
Shen Tai is the son of a famed general in the Emperor’s Army, and he lives in a time of peace and stability. When we meet him he is burying the dead from one of his father’s most celebrated and faraway battles… and his life is soon going to change… as is that of all of the empire. During the course of the novel he is repeatedly forced by tradition and customs to act in a way that brings him farther and farther away from his personal wishes, simultaneously also forcing change on the Empire; change that would had come sooner or later regardless but now descends on the people, in haste.
The story is told in a tone and style both typical and atypical – the story and it’s many threads, the careful portraits of both culture and people – all is classic Kay. But this time the flow is easy, like a small forest stream, a happy delightful telling of a tale whose darkness gets a brighter sheen because of the radiant delight the author shows in telling it. This makes Under Heaven quite another beast compared with some of his earlier books, were style and figure often rends the tale an air of contrived intellectuality. (For the sake of it I have to say I LOVE Lions of Al-Rassan; it’s delightful in it’s elaborate complexity.)
What haven’t changed is the sense of detachment. Kay paints vivid portraits, capturing the reader, sowing curiosity. But as he approaches the inevitable end he distances himself from the protagonists, sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly, and we often only get to know what happened through reading an epilogue, sketching a forever after from far away… and as with other of his books so with Under Heaven.
Despite that it’s a good read, rewarding, even, leaving this reader with a slow sense of contentment.
Read it. If you have yet to read anything by Kay this is a good introduction.
And if you’ve read his earlier books I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed :D