Under Heaven (Under Heaven #1), by Guy Gavriel Kay
I was informed about this particular series by a coworker of mine, and this book is the first of the author’s thirteen books in our library system that I was able to get to. It certainly was a powerful beginning, as the author provides a just barely fantasy retelling of a fascinating story of Chinese politics that goes on for more than 500 pages and makes the reader appreciate the discussion of court politics and the folly that led to the death of tens of millions of Chinese during the An Lushan rebellion during the T’ang Dynasty. Again, this book is fictionalized, but sticks very closely to the historical knowledge along with enough plausible fictionalization to dress it up. One can easily imagine this book as being a biographical history of an obscure noble Chinese scholar and warrior in an only slightly parallel universe to our own, and there is no question that the author has done his homework on China and its relationship to outsiders during the course of the 8th century AD. The character at the center of the story is immensely appealing and the world he inhabits both large and small in all the best ways. This is a novel to savor.
The book begins as a bit of a mystery, as the gift of 250 magical horses to a retired Kitaian military officer finds him seeking to get rid of his unwanted gift in such a way that does not lead to his slaughter by different sides in a court dispute between a powerful but illiterate barbarian ruling over multiple provinces with three armies and his adopted cousin, a petulant fool and relative of the young empress at court who hired hitmen to kill the protagonist while hiring his older brother as a chief adviser, making a chief concubine out of the protagonist’s love interest, and raising the protagonist’s sister to the status of princess to marry a brutal barbarian chieftain. The protagonist manages to find some allies in a banished but immensely talented poet and a lithe and fantastically brave bodyguard and manages to find his way in the messy and complex court politics while impressing the emperor as well as his heir. Flight and fight interplay as armies clash, a large amount of dead bodies is racked up, and people face their reckoning in brutal coup attempts as the preservation of life and honor proves an immensely difficult challenge.
In reading this novel, I was a bit surprised that there were not more fantastic elements. When someone has devoted years to burying graves for soldiers in massive battles and ends up acquiring a good reputation as a result of his piety, the ability to add ghosts and shamans with magical power is pretty evident. More surprising than the presence of such elements to me, at least, was the restraint with which the author treated such materials, showing the protagonist as someone who both had seen some supernatural phenomena but was by and large what we would consider a rational person. And the family and personal dynamics at the heart of this particular book are powerful as well, with sisters being raised up to the status of princess to be married abroad, and brothers quarreling over power and position. This book shows a generally dim perspective of elites and shows how foolish and rash decisions can lead to the deaths of millions of people in pointless slaughter. The tragic results of the petulance of people in power is definitely on display here, and it gives a weight to this book that raises it above mere escapist literature. The author has achieved something very special here in making a compelling picture of Chinese geopolitics with resonance far outside of its genre and subject material.