To the short but piquant catalogue of perfumed, heady fantasies by Westerners set in an Oriental milieu — those from Ernest Bramah, Barry Hughart, Liz Williams and E. Hoffman Price are prominent — must now be added Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay.
Kay has set his novel in the empire of Kitai — an accurate, albeit transmogrified stand-in for our historical China. The author has been publicly adamant about the superiority of imaginary venues over their realworld templates, using “the prism of fantasy to treat the matter of history,” and his hybrid mode generally repays the reader. Tangibility and verisimilitude abound, with a leavening of the supernatural and occult.
The hero of Under Heaven is one Shen Tai, a figure loosely modeled on the poet Li Po. Son of an important dead general, Shen Tai prefers verse and philosophy, although he is skilled enough for self-defense in the martial arts known as Kanlin. Having secluded himself from court politics for two years in the mountains, Shen Tai rejoins the world to find his beloved Spring Rain in the arms of another, a price on his head, and a gift of 250 rare horses attached to his name, more like a curse than a boon. (Recall Twain’s “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note.”) Accompanied by female bodyguard Wei Song, Shen Tai sets out for the capital of Xinan to reclaim his legacy.
This stately, elegaic, evocative tale, which alternates its sections among the prominent personages in Shen Tai’s life, is suffused mainly with a melancholy gravitas. Courtly politesse and Machiavellian politics abound. By the closing chapters, Shen Tai’s story has receded into legend, leaving the characters of this tragedy somewhat ghostly. What’s missing is the historical Li Po’s bawdy, carefree insouciance and adherence to art above all. Amidst the somber forests, battlefields and bloody palaces, the plotting and counter-plotting, some drunken, nose-thumbing irreverance might have played well, and bolstered Shen Tai’s stated adherence to a balanced spiritual path.