250 Galloping McGuffins: A Review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven

At the absolute summit of accomplishment the insects chewing from within at the most extravagant sandalwood may be heard, if the nights are quiet enough.

I am nominally Chinese though I understand I am not very good at being Chinese. I speak both Mandarin and Cantonese but only read Chinese at the level of a particularly slow 3-year-old. I did, however, grew up in a Chinese community and there are some stories that I picked up just by soaking in the culture without meaning to, like pruny fingers in a bathtub. The story of Yang Guifei is familiar to me in broad strokes, mostly because she is to my people who Helen of Troy is to the west—a woman remembered in history for her beauty, and blamed for the collapse of a great nation. She was the subject of many Hong Kong TV shows and movies and of course, with her story came An Lushan and his rebellion in the Tang Dynasty. And that is what Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven is all about.

There is no name in literature more synonymous with historical fantasy than Mr Kay’s name and as fan of the subgenre, it had been tardy of me to have neglected his body of work for this long. Additionally, Mr Kay is also famed for the exquisiteness and lyricism of his prose—which I thought is quite on brand for someone tapped by Christopher Tolkien to help put his dad’s notes together into The Silmarillion. There are many quotes and turns of phrases that I noted down from Under Heaven simply because of how evocative they are and they are a pleasure to read even in isolation from the story. It is a glacier of a book. It moves slowly, but boy, what a beautiful and majestic experience it is. This is what I feel to be the primary strength of Guy Gavriel Kay as an author, along with the evident care he put into his research. The Kitai empire he envisioned simply felt right and authentic to a Chinese reader like me because he clearly did his homework.

But to drag the metaphor of a glacier even further, there are aspects of the book that left me cold. While I get the impulse to substitute the rigidity of history with the flexibility of fantasy, I wonder why Under Heaven remained so inflexibly faithful to the actual events of the An Lushan rebellion. Why bother to change the name of the historical figures, when the changes are so comically small? Like how An Lushan became An Li alias Roshan, the Tang capital of Xi’an became Xinan, Daming Palace became Ta-Ming Palace, and—my personal pet peeve—the Tong Pass became the Teng Pass. And almost every major event of this historical period was duplicated in this book as well, so much so that the actual Wiki article for the An Lushan Rebellion should carry a spoiler warning for Under Heaven. Even some smaller details, like the story of how An Lushan allowed himself to be treated like a baby in a farcical adoption ceremony by Yang Guifei or An Lushan’s diabetes made the cut in Mr Kay’s book. Yes, the change from Great Wall to Long Wall actually makes it more accurate to reality (since that is what 长城 translates to) but it doesn’t assuage my feeling that Under Heaven was unnecessarily fictionalised.

Mr Kay did have an answer for me:

I want to keep readers turning pages until two in the morning or better (or worse!). So consider this: if I base a book on a slightly altered past the reader who knows what happened in that time and place does not know with any certainty what will happen in my story. In Under Heaven I’ve served notice with the shift to an imagined Kitai from real China that I reserve the right to change, or telescope events.

Under Heaven‘s Author’s letter by Guy Gavriel Kay at Brightweavings, Kay’s authorized website

That is all well and good but when it turns out that nothing major is changed and history proceeded in the book is it did in real history, I couldn’t help circling back to my original question.

Perhaps the greater historical events were merely intended to serve as a backdrop for the more intimate story of his protagonist, Shen Tai, who was gifted 250 of our world’s equivalent of Ferghana horses which posed significant difficulties for him as every major political player in the empire covets them. The plot was further thickened when an assassin turned up at his abode at the edge of the empire (where he was leading a hermit’s existence) in order to kill him. The theme of balance is introduced very early in this character’s story and it is genuinely interesting to see the increasingly tangled political web he found himself caught in as he travelled closer and closer to the kingdom’s capital, promising to bring world-changing wakes in the pond of power with his approach—all while trying to keep powerful friends and enemies (and frenemies) in safe, balanced orbits around him. So, I was disappointed that nothing he did or put into motion actually altered the course of history (which remained stubbornly on rails). In this, he is like the Tauriel character in The Hobbit films: clearly grafted onto the original story, made no difference to it, and could be excised completely without impacting anything.

If Shen Tai’s story is inconsequential, his sister Shen Li-Mei’s story is even more so. She is Shen Tai’s younger sister who was raised to the rank of princess to be prostituted off to the Uighur Khaganate (called the Bogü Khaganate in the book) in a diplomatic marriage, and her plight is arguably the main motivation for Shen Tai’s actions throughout the book. Through her entire arc, with the exception of a couple of small events, she remained a passive damsel who was just shuttled by men from point A to point B to point C. Her story is separate and does not, at any time, affect Shen Tai’s story—just as Shen Tai’s does not make a difference to the story of An Lushan’s An Li’s rebellion, essentially making her a useless subplot to a useless subplot. Still, I was amused by the description of how dynastic China exported fake princesses for diplomatic reasons to vassal states. Our own Princess Hang Li Po, given to the Malaccan Sultanate in the 15th century, was thought to be one of these counterfeit princesses:

There are—as with everything done in the Ta-Ming Palace—precedents for elevating lesser women to royalty for this purpose. It is a sly trick played on the barbarians. All the subject peoples want, ever, is the ability to claim a link to Kitan royalty.

What further rankled me is how much of a Gary Stu Shen Tai is. Almost everyone who meets him respects him or wants to have sex with him and like his sister, he is a relatively passive protagonist as well since he mostly got ping-ponged by powers bigger than him across the empire’s chessboard. There are times I wondered if he is really a character or just a tourist in the book. Although he is Kitan (Chinese) in the story, he represents the epitome of a privileged straight white guy who just keeps falling upwards in life as assistance, women, and wealth pours continuously into his corner—all for being an okay dude. Also for some reason, he is the only Chinese/Kitan character in the story described as having deep-set eyes that suggest Caucasian ancestry in him. No other Chinese/Kitan character received such a description, not even his siblings. Make of that what you will.

To Mr Kay’s credit, there is a relatively large and diverse cast of prominent female characters in Under Heaven that made up for Shen Li-Mei’s princess-in-jeopardy storyline including the foreign-born love interest courtesan, Spring Rain; the regal and savvy Precious Consort Wen Jian (meant to be Yang Guifei); and the deadly Kanlin warrior waif Wei Song. Less to Mr Kay’s credit, they are all invariably described as incredibly hot and attractive, and Shen Tai wants to fuck all of them. There is not a single female character that enters the story without bringing sexual tension for Shen Tai—not even an assassin who wanted him dead. Author Jim Butcher who wrote the Dresden Files is chronically criticised for his series’s well documented male gaze and Harry Dresden’s chivalrous pervert persona, and I think Mr Kay’s Shen Tai can give Dresden a run for his money. It certainly didn’t help that his name sounds like hentai.

In many ways, Under Heaven resembles Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings immensely. Both follow historical events faithfully (too faithfully some may say), featuring practically undisguised versions of real historical figures. Both struggle to find a compromise between historically accurate depictions of women of the time period they were writing about and giving them meaningful representation. Both were written like serialised epics that have long lists of characters that weave in and out of the narrative, sometimes appearing only for a single chapter.

While I appreciate Mr Kay’s writing which got me hooked in spite of my poor engagement with the story, I find myself favouring Mr Liu’s work more. For one thing, in The Grace of Kings, we follow the stories of major figures who are actively influencing and deciding events and not irrelevant small potatoes that are helplessly buffeted by the currents of history. There were also greater efforts made by Mr Liu, especially in the latter half of The Grace of Kings, in changing the place of women in history (preluding more prominent feminist themes and characters in the sequel). Sure, Mr Kay did attempt to reform Yang Guifei’s role in the fall of the Tang Dynasty somewhat but as attempts go it was feeble and halfhearted.

And while Under Heaven‘s claim to fantasy lies with the existence of some ghosts and small-scale shamanistic magic, Mr Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty feature a whole pantheon of gods, silkpunk tech like airships, and fantastic creatures like herbivorous dragons and giant horned whales called crubens that play huge story roles. Now, I am not saying I don’t appreciate subtler fantastic elements but Mr Kay’s reticence in employing more of them mystifies me: why not just write straightforward historical fiction? Why write historical fantasy when (a) you don’t change any major historical events or outcomes, and (b) none of the fantasy elements are prominent enough to matter to the story?

Even for a half-past six Chinese person such as myself, I was able to recognise Li Bai’s poem, which Shen Tai was appreciating at the beginning of the book,

Before my bed the light is so bright
it looks like a layer of frost.
Lifting my head I gaze at the moon,
lying back down I think of home.

靜夜思 (Quiet Night Thought) by Li Bai

This Li Bai verse is as memorable (and as clichéd) as Roses Are Red in the English language. There are many other poems featured in the book that were composed by Mr Kay himself and to my functionally-illiterate Chinese ears, they sounded like pretty good works of mimicry to me. It occurred to me that the less I knew about Chinese history and culture going in, the more I would have enjoyed Under Heaven. Even so, in spite of my many petty complaints (so numerous are they that I began questioning if I actually liked the book in the first place), I truly appreciate this refresher on a very interesting period of upheaval in Chinese history and I am glad that this iconic story is being shared with a wider audience. I was also sufficiently courted by Mr Kay’s prose styling and diligence to historical accuracy that I am now curious to check out his other works, preferably inspired by history in other parts of the world. Perhaps some cultural distance from the subject matter would improve my opinion of Mr Kay, which is not a low one, mind you, but it is also no where near as high as the esteem the literary community holds for him.

Rating: 3.5/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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