Gay Gavriel Kay is known for his manipulation of meticulously researched history into subtly fantastical tapestries of novels, and Under Heaven plays a variation upon that form using Tang Dynasty China as inspiration. The book is long and immersive, filled with the gorgeous, decadent pageantry that so often accompanies great empires–the palaces, the clothing, the perfumes, the jewels and feathers, the opulent gifts. Of course, behind all this lies the plot motivation: the sincere desire among those in power to, at the perfect time, kill one another for a precisely planned gain. It’s an enthralling adventure with many “ooh” moments, but Kay doesn’t skate away perfectly. There are some problems with pace, and big time problems with the fetishization of women in positions of sexual slavery. I understand that courtesans and concubines were a part of culture in the historical period that inspired Kay, but even considering that, I feel that his presentation of their points of view and capabilities was laughably deficient. It also irritated me that the main character reliably saw every single woman blatantly in terms of her sexual potential to him, at least at first meeting. If you can put that aside (and I tried to do that, mostly), the overall story is wonderful, especially with the enhancements of crying ghosts, shamans, and wolf spirits. Certain scenes were just exquisite. Certain captivating characters (Sima Zian, Meshtag) I’d read another whole book about, gladly. Wish both of them had gotten more page time.
I look forward to giving another of Kay’s novels a shot somewhere down the line. Song for Arbonne is so beautiful, and so much better than this was. Maybe I’ll just read that one again.