Review: Under Heaven, by Guy G Kay

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


Reread: A Song for Arbonne, by Guy G. Kay

This is my third read of A Song for Arbonne, and this third time, despite knowing what will happen, it hits me just as hard as it did the first time – maybe even more. Despite this I didn’t have it in queue for a reread – there are so many other books to read, out there – hadn’t it been for it being chosen as the next group read at the Green Dragon, the Librarything pub.

As usual with Kay a number intertwined themes are present throughout the book – most prominently themes of loyalty and trust, and of the destructive powers of a monocultural society. The backdrop is a early medieval type of world, with feudal nations or nation states, each small enough to be travelled on horse in a couple of days, and in a precarious balance of powers. We follow Blaise, who first seems to be a mercenary just like any other – the younger son of some noble family, not in line of inheritance and thus not particularly needed – as he after long travels ends up in legendary Arbonne. Coming from the patriarchal Gorhaut he is prejudiced against “women-ruled” Arbonne but as he comes to know both the men and women ruling the river valley he slowly beings to understand and appreciate, if not love, a culture that could not had thrived elsewhere. Had it not been for his background, slowly revealed throughout the tale, this could had been enough. But he soon finds himself embroiled in the kind of politics that define both nations, cultures, and their vessels – the people ruling.

Kay paints an elaborate and believable world were people’s powers and strengths have their limits, in a feudal society were the produce of the land is what ultimately sustains the economy, were even the powerful has draughty windows and cold stone floor, and were death is as omnipresent as life.

Personally I don’t much like the ending. It is a sad one, in more ways than one, even if the characters themselves seems to accept it as a good one. Still, a very good read, and a rewarding one.

Connections. Discovering the true stories behind the fiction

Having read and reread G G Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan some five times in the course of three years it was almost a revelation to read Fletcher’s Moorish Spain. Did I ever think Lions was a work of fiction?!?!?! O my was I deluded!
I had read about the early medieval history of the Iberian peninsula before ever even knowing of the existence of Lions. I had even pilgrimaged to certain sites in southern Spain, like Granada, Cordoba. I had travelled the Andalusian countryside, I had watched Morocco from Gebr al-Tariq – sorry, Gibraltar – thinking how short the distance had been for the Berb conquerors and their Arab masters, back in the early eight century. I thought knowing the smells and the texture and some of the history of the country and its peoples biased my reading.


Only a couple of pages into Moorish Spain I felt the urge to check if Kay mentioned any of his sources for Lions on his website. He did. Top position on the list was this one book – Moorish Spain, by Richard Fletcher. As I continued to read I started to note down obvious references between the two. Remember – one is a work of fiction, the other is a comprehensive history. Not a textbook, sure, but a non-fictional text summarizing a historic period.

These are the connections I found –

The only real person mentioned on Kay’s website is El Cid (Rodrigo Diaz), which is said to be the inspiration for Rodrigo Belmonte.
Others, as I discovered them, are –

I’m quite convinced Ammar ibn Khairan is modelled on a composite of the bisexual muslim poet and petty king Al-Mu’tamid ibn Abbad of Seville and the king’s lover, the poet and statesman Ibn Ammar. Like Ibn Khairan Al-Mu’tamid ended his life in exile (or as a prisoner, depending on source. Either way it was in Morocco).

I also think Tarif ibn Hassan is modelled in part on ‘Umar ibn Hafsun, the brigand leader originally from Rhonda but acting out of the mountains at Bobastro (ibn Hassan, as we remember, was headquartered in Arbastro).

Ibn Ammar and El Cid was both exiled to Zaragoza in the early 1080’s – El Cid for being over-zealous when exacting parias from Toledo, much the same way as Rodrigo Belmonte was. They might have met.
(From this point on the true story of Diaz don’t match the one of the fictional Belmonte).

If Cartada is Seville (even down to the beetles producing the crimson dye) then Ragosa ought to be Granada, with it’s protected location in the mountains, with it’s jewish first minister Samuel ibn Naghrila and with it’s amir Badis. Samuel’s son Josef seems to have come to an end just like Mazur ben Avren. (The splendid Alhambra was a later addition to Granada, but a writer of fiction are allowed some lee).

The Muwardis seems to be related to the Almoravids, zealous Berbers from the Maghrib. The al-Andalusian petty-kings invited them for protection against the Christians. Al-Mu’tamid of Seville seems to have been instrumental in this. He reputedly said that he “would rather be a camel-herder in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile”. This sentiment is echoed almost word by word by Ibn Khairan when turning down an offer from Belmote.
The first I had guessed already but the details looks almost as copyright infringement, if such laws applied to real life.

At last, in the epilogue, Ibn Kharian makes an elegy to Al-Rassan. This elegy echoes the elegy the poet ar-Rundi composed for Seville – “Ask Valencia what became of Murcia…” – quoted in the Fletcher’s book.

Do this lessen the value of Lions? If you ask me the answer is no. Kay uses this setting as background, to tell another story – one of how individuals might want to try to affect what’s happening but that not even the mightiest are truly independent from the whims of others or the realities of economical and social and political factors.

I’m a wee bit disappointed because I thought Kay had created more of this story than he really did. But I can live with that.

Links to my reviews of The Lions of Al-Rassan and Moorish Spain

Gender in writing. An infected topic, but I can’t let that stop me :-)

Last year when I read Powers by Ursula K Le Guin, the third novel in the sequence Annals of the Western Shore, I could not help but reflect that if that story had been written by a man this would had been branded a piece of true misogyny. Throughout the story, aimed at young adult readers, women are systematically treated as objects and frequently as objects without worth beyond the physical. Only at the very end do we get to see that this is not how it must be, and even then it is ambiguous.

This is not the first time that happens in her writings. I think her method is to show the world as it is, in all it’s cruelty, and then offer alternatives or strategies. It’s not a very direct method but she manages, mainly because I as a reader know her for a feminist. But this begs the question what would happen with how we interpreted her stories if there wasn’t a name attached to them.

Compare with the female characters, and the worlds, described by Guy G Kay. Some women thinks he writes good female characters but most seem to think him a chauvinist, always describing worlds and circumstances were women are secondary beings left to their own often subversive strategies if they are to survive or hold power, and often with their bodies as part of the game.
Given that Kay often writes historical fiction rather than the fantasy his books are tagged with, is this so strange?

Should an author be charged with writing only worlds or tales she or he would want for themselves, or do an author have the possibility to make up worlds and situations as stages for discussion and elaboration, extrapolation, debate?

Granted Kay has no feminist agenda, but in some ways his writings works just as well as Le Guin’s to show what is wrong with a society, from a gender perspective. But he is a man, is he not, and not gay (what I know, anyway, I generally don’t care but feminists often seems to do), so he just HAS to be chauvinist. Stands to reason, no?

I don’t say that they should be equalled. It is allowed to be appalled or charmed by both, either or none of them. But I do have to wonder where and by what criteria we place our borders.

Reread while sick: The Lions of Al-Rassan

This comes labelled as fantasy but the only fantastic elements are the invented, two moon, world and a boy having visions. Even then the place names, religions and geography closely echoes Moorish Spain at the time of the Reconquista.

The story follows a group of people through the ending of Al-Rassan (al-Andalus). A infamous asharite (muslim) courtier, an equally infamous (or famous, depending on your world view) jaddite (christian) captain and a kindath (jewish) doctor. The supporting cast features a young jaddite soldier, the family of the jaddite captain, an asharite merchant, a jaddite king and a selection of asharite ones, a kindath chancellor and zealous desert warriors.

The first time I read this book the likenesses with real history and real geography irked me slightly but as the story began to spin through the pages my (slight) knowledge of the era, and me having visited some of the remnants of it, only worked to paint that important inner vision of the place, with smells and textures and all.

Kay is good at portraying people as people, worthy of themselves and with motives, ridden by their anguishes, their pride and their desires – very few of the characters are truly evil or truly good – almost everyone is a bit of each.
He is good at political intrigue, even the shrewder bits of it, and I appreciate that a lot as I think it adds considerable depth.

Kay uses ambiguity and multiple viewpoints as stylistic tools, and to me that only makes the story stronger. I can see, however, how it can equally irritate as it slows the actual happenings instead of tightening the psychological pressure, if you’re a certain kind of reader.

After the first few reads I also started to discern the fact that while the female kindath doctor seemed to be a main character in reality she’s only a plot device used to give dimension to the real main cast, the real topic – the asharite courtier and the jaddite captain who when meeting in exile starts a friendship, with her in the middle. But seen that way isn’t EVERYONE in ANY story a plot device?

So I can live with that. Because what he seems to say is that religions as religion, all zealots are narrow minded and when big politics takes over the individual can only do so much to steer clear of the shoals.
That the enemy is ordinary people, just like you and me, only with other goals and circumstances.
This reflects my own opinion.

I chose to read this book because with a high fever I needed a story I knew and with some happy moments in it. This should not be taken as a sign that this is an uncontroversial text; it is a cruel romance, full of severed body parts, spilled intestines and explicit sex. And a great deal of political intrigue and religious critique.
But those things only work to make the characters and the world more realistic, with less need for suspended disbelief.

Nevermind the not very good poetry. After this fifth read I still think it’s a good book.

(Anyone reading the book should NOT skip the epilogue.)