Under Heaven

August 4, 2011 at 4:03 pm (culture, Guy Gavriel Kay, history, Literature)

You know, I love the books by Guy Gavriel Kay – he’s my favourite author, and I have read all his novels. I skipped the poetry, though, simply because I don’t like poetry very much and because I think GGK is  a lot better when writing prose. Every time a new novel is announced and finally published, it’s like a small feast. In fact, it’s like christmas and my birthday all wrapped up. With “Under Heaven”, his latest novel, published in 2010, things were different. Very different.

“Finally! A new GGK book!” was my jubilant thought when “Under Heaven” was published last year.

“Finally! It’s here!” I cried out when the novel was delivered to me.

“Finally. It’s over!” was my rather disappointed and, yes, a little depressed, annoyed and irritated conclusion when I closed the book last night.

It took me over a month to read those 560+ pages – very unusual even for a person who doesn’t have that much time on her hands to read.Maybe this will illustrate how unusual that period of time really is:  “Tigana”, my first GGK novel ever, a volume of almost 700 pages, took me only 1,5 weeks, maybe 2 weeks. Definitely no longer than that. Simply because I couldn’t put the book down, I had to know what happened next. Same with “The Fionavar Tapestry”, consisting of three volumes;  same with “Lions of Al-Rassan”, still my favourite GGK novel; same with the “Sarantine Mosaic”, consisting of two volumes; also the same with “A Song for Arbonne”, “Last Light of the Sun” and “Ysabel”, even though these three never made it to my personal top 5 list of greatest GGK novels ever. Still – I could not put them down. Not one of them. And except for “Last Light of the Sun” and “Ysabel”, I have re-read them all. And all of them – except for “Last Light of the Sun” and “Ysabel”, again – made me cry at some point. With “Lions”, for instance, it doesn’t matter how often I read the book – the last 20+ pages always blur before my eyes.

Why did it take me so long to finish “Under Heaven”, then? Why the disappointment? What the hell has happened?

It’s pretty simple: The book is boring as hell. GGK employed his technique of weaving a fictional tale into a historical setting, renaming people and places, inventing new characters, doing a lot of research, and writing the whole damn thing in his particular style. The writing is perfect. The structure is perfect. The research – perfect again. So you’d think this should be a pretty good book. Well, it is – if you’re interested in the Tang Dynasty that ruled China in the 9th century AD. If you love medieval Chinese culture – this is the book for you. From a neutral point of view, this is a good book. From my personal point of view, it is a boring, tedious book featuring the most boring character ever. Let’s see if I can get this straight.

The main character, Shen Tai, has spent two years at a remote place named Kuala Nor, burying the dead left there after a war that had raged between his country and another. He has done so because his father, a famous general, has died and he needs to spend at least two years in mourning. He has done so also because his father has fought at Kuala Nor. So he spends his days burying the dead and his nights listening to the ghosts of the dead wailing outside. When his two-year-mourning-period comes to an end, an old friend shows up with an important message but is killed before he can deliver the message. The assassin, too, is killed. Soldiers from the once-rivalling country bring not only food but also a note from their princess (who happens to be a daughter of Tai’s own ruler): For what Tai has done at Kuala Nor, he’ll be given 250 Sardian horses, the most precious and valuable horses ever. This, of course, means there will be more attempts on his life but he is clever enough to work out a plan so that no-one can kill him without losing the horses for the empire. As it turns out, Tai has to return to the capital and try to survive at a presumably glittering court.

Honestly: If I had read this plot summary and the book had been written by any other author – I would not have bought it. I only bought and read it because it’s by GGK, and that’s one of the few good things I can say about it. The story is boring, it drags on and, above all, it’s not even very inventive. The concept of sending a young man to court so he must prove himself there, making him valuable because he has done something important? Kay has done that before, and much, much better, in “Sailing to Sarantium” and “Lord of Emperors'”. While the Sarantine court is very lively, glittering, deceiving, coulourful, the Ta-Ming palace of Kitai is… lifeless.  It’s introduced pretty late, I think about halfway through the book, with Tai showing up even later so that plotline – young man must prove himself yadayada – really goes nowhere. Plus we know – or can at least presume – that Tai will avoid all plots easily. Which, of course, he does. Not that there are many plots to avoid. Crispin in the “Sarantine Mosaic” had a much harder time at the Sarantine court than Tai did at the Ta-Ming.

The characters are busy hiding their feelings and intentions from each other while observing (and preserving) protocol. Oh, and they drink wine. A lot. Some of them write poetry because their culture makes them to, which gives Kay the opportunity to sprinkle in some verses. As I said above, I think his prose is a lot better. Plus I don’t like poetry. Plus it felt unnatural. Why would virtually every man write poetry in his spare time while virtually every woman engages in dancing and/or playing the “pipa”?

I know – culture. That’s probably what Tang China was like. But it wasn’t my cup of tea. And the characters? Oh please, don’t get me started. The only characters I really liked were the women – Tai’s sister Li Mei, Spring Rain (a concubine) and Wen Jian, consort to the emperor, all of them headstrong women – as well as some minor characters and, of course, the Banished Immortal, a poet who had been banished from the empire several times and who drank too much. These characters felt alive. I couldn’t bring myself to care enough for them, though, but at least there were some likeable characters in this book whose stories, as far as they have been told, I enjoyed.

But Tai, our main hero? He’s a bore. Granted, he’s very mature and he’s not as shaken or unstable as other GGK characters tend to be. Sure, he hasn’t found his place in the world yet but it seemed to me that, whatever he tried before Kuala Nor, he messed up. He wasn’t good enough to become a Kanlin (trained fighters, I guess their equivalent would be the Shaolin), he wasn’t really fit for the army, and before he could become a mandarin, he went off to Kuala Nor to bury dead bodies. My point is: This guy has achieved very little, yet he is given precious horses and becomes a very important figure simply because he has buried dead bodies. All the time he remains the same old bore – cool, distanced, anxious to hide his feelings and to observe protocol, reserved even when it comes to meeting his former beloved Spring Rain. I know – culture again. I seem to lack understanding for this kind of culture, for this kind of character and for this kind of story.

Maybe it’s my fault that I didn’t enjoy “Under Heaven”. I have no knowledge of Tang China and its culture but whereas other books by GGK made me want to go out and get as many books on the period covered as possible, this one just makes me want to forget about it and leave the book on the shelf where it can collect some dust. It’s a shame and I’d never have thought that I would write such a harsh review on one of GGK’s book. But as it seems, even he can fail.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: