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Thursday, June 02, 2011

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I recently read Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay. (The first link in the previous sentence gives plot and publication information.) It was a good read, indeed. The book was, as the Wikipedia article says, a fictionalized setting of the An Shi rebellion in ancient China, an event which took more lives than any other war in recorded history, up until World War II (by which time there were a lot more people living).

Kay considers the war, but most of the book is about the events leading up to it, and he doesn't give much notice that a war is coming until the book is far along. Under Heaven is about characters and setting. It has a plot, too. What characters? What setting?

The book is too long, and too complex, for me to do it justice. See the first link in this post, if you want more detail and scope.

The characters are the most powerful people around the emperor, the family of the late General Shen Gao, and some other individuals who are important to that family. The emperor, himself, is a minor character. Kay occasionally introduces a totally new character, and tells some aspect of his story from the point view of that person for a chapter or more. In one case, he does this for a street beggar.

The book is also a love story. Two of the characters discover that they are in love with each other, after being associated for a long time.

The setting is the ins and outs of China, and surrounding lands, as Kay sees it, at that time. Much of the book bristles with court intrigue and protocol. One way to become important is to be a good poet -- one character in the book is a professional poet. Prospective court officials are tested, in part, on their ability to write poetry. There is a poetry contest between two characters.

The book is fantastic, a little. It would be historical fiction, but for the shamans, and the ghosts. There are ghosts, and they save the life of one of the characters. There are shamans, and they can work magic. They almost succeed into turning one of the characters into a wolf -- they would have, if the magic hadn't been interrupted. The ghosts and the shamans, or their effects, are necessary in the development of a son, and the daughter, of General Shen Gao. There is also a society, the kanlin, who are warriors, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While it is not clear that they possess extraordinary powers, it is not certain that they don't. They certainly fight well.

Although I found no Christ-figure, and this is by no means a Christian novel, there are characters with integrity, and even characters who sacrifice their own lives, in the book.

If you want to be taken into a complex world, unlike 21st Century North America, try Under Heaven.

Thanks for reading.


Jason and Kelley said...

Thanks for sharing!!

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Jason and Kelley.