Last Friday I had a lovely literary surprise. Browsing in Waterstones, while waiting to meet a friend for Moonrise Kingdom, I discovered that they had Under Heaven in stock. It is one of the books by Kay which I haven’t read, so I snapped it up. It was a treat worth waiting for.
The story takes place in Kitai, a sprawling Eastern empire physically enclosed by the Long Wall and socially circumscribed by protocol. Tradition, ritual and convention govern every aspect of life: a man can be exiled for making one bow too many or too few, and criticism of the Emperor or his policies is a treasonable offence. Poetry, music and fine calligraphy are required skills for civil service mandarins, and artists are celebrated – as long as they use their skills in glorification of the Emperor and his realm.
In this over-regulated, dangerous world, one man makes a choice and thereby unwittingly changes everything. Shen Tai mourns his father’s death by travelling to the lake of Kuala Nor, a contested territory between Kitai and neighbouring Tagur. Here, where his father once fought a battle that marked him for life, Tai labours during the day to lay the bones of the dead to rest, and at night barricades himself against the screams and wails of the as-yet-unburied ghosts. He doesn’t – cannot, will not – discriminate between the bones of his own people and those of their Taguran enemies. It is an act of bravery; more than that, it is an act of compassion. In acknowledgement of this, the Taguran queen (once a princess of Kitai) offers Tai a double-edged gift.
You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes. The Princess Cheng-wan… had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.
Kay often focuses on tipping points – moments where the thread of destiny is changed – but I think this is the novel where this theme is most powerful; where one event is so profoundly responsible for so much that follows. The ramifications of Tai’s promised gift flow outwards like ripples from a pebble dropped into a pool (an image which sprang to mind, only for me to find that Kay used it some pages on). Even though he doesn’t have the horses yet, the promise of them is enough to make Tai an influential man and his return to the capital, Xinan, sets in motion a whole train of events as the different factions at Court react to this new piece on the game-board.
Throughout the novel there are lesser turning-points, which Kay flags almost teasingly. He points out that a simple choice might lead a character towards or away from something which would have changed their entire story, and how easily things might have been otherwise. This crops up in other books too and I rather like it – the author drawing our attention to the plot threads – but here it works especially well because, as with A Song for Arbonne, Kay subtly modifies the style of the book in sympathy with the culture it depicts. Arbonne was indebted to troubadour romances; Under Heaven is peppered with the thoughtful tones of a civil-service mandarin, weighing up cause and effect.
Although I read the book under the assumption that this is the same universe in which Kay’s other fictionalised histories take place (A Song for Arbonne; The Sarantine Mosaic; The Lions of Al-Rassan), I may be wrong. For one thing, there is only one moon in the sky and this is something that Kay makes deliberately clear. Tai’s travelling companion, the poet Sima Zian, is renowned for his poems about the moon and at once point he publicly confesses that ‘I have sometimes dreamed of a second moon to write about’ (at which point I said, ‘Aha!’). Nevertheless there is a similarity with the Sarantine books in the treatment of the otherworldly or the spiritual. In the Sarantine books I felt that the zubir and the ghostly flames in the streets of Sarantium worked perfectly in the context of the world. Here the same is true of the wailing of the unburied ghosts at Kuala Nor and the animal-magic of the shamans among the grassland nomads. These things feel thoroughly plausible within the story – mystical, rather than overtly magical – and there are moments of great power.
Almost always, in Kay’s books, there’s a moment which makes all the hairs on my arms stand on end: here it wasn’t a scene of nobility or grandeur or sweeping epic, but a much more intimate moment. It was the scene where Li-Mei, Tai’s sister, explores a cave in the grasslands and stumbles upon a cavern whose walls are full of ancient hand-paintings of stampeding horses. It was an immensely vivid image.
In these books, characterisation is always a strong point and here there are some wonderful figures, many of them women: Tai’s sister Li-Mei, whom I’ve already mentioned, stood out for me in particular: her sense of family duty vies with an ambition far stronger than her brother’s. Among the other characters, I also especially liked Bytsan sri Nespo, the Taguran officer who befriends Tai at Kuala Nor and who brings him news of the gift of the Sardian horses; I was glad to see that he wasn’t forgotten as the book progressed. And of course I have to mention Shen Tai himself, whom I found to be one of Kay’s most sympathetic heroes: a modest and unassuming man who feels lost at the eye of the storm he creates. He has braved the ghosts at Kuala Nor because he believes it was the right thing to do, not to make a point – though he inadvertently makes one, about the artificiality of borders and the ability of kindness and humanity to cross those borders. That, as much as anything else, seems to be the underlying theme of the book and one that is as relevant today, in this world, as it is in fictional Kitai.
As ever, there is a richly imagined context for the story, and Kay’s world is full of allusions which suggest a tapestry of legends, myths and histories that as readers we will never know. Passing references to famous poets or previous dynasties, which exist only in Kay’s world, are blended with motifs or beliefs from Chinese literature and culture. I freely confess that I’m not familiar with the Chinese canon, but Under Heaven has already motivated me to look things up. In doing so, I can appreciate even more how Kay has woven his world together with ours. For example, in Under Heaven the word ‘daiji’ refers to a kind of demon, a fox-spirit, which can take the form of a beautiful woman. It turns out that, although the generalised Chinese term for such spirits is huli jing, one of the most notorious legendary fox-spirits was named Daji.
Similarly, the Emperor’s first minister in Under Heaven is called Wen Zhou, a name that meant nothing to me until I discovered that one of the earliest epic heroes in Chinese literature is Wen, king of the vassal state of Zhou. Such discoveries make me happy because they add many more layers to the story beyond the simple level of good storytelling, and it means that each time I reread it I’ll be able to do so with greater understanding of the work that has gone into it. Fortunately the thorough author’s note at the back of the book provides some starting points for finding out more about Tang China, which provided the inspiration for the story, and Chinese poetry, which plays such a strong role within it.
I think that there are two main ways to tell whether you’ve enjoyed a book: either by wanting to start it all over again as soon as you’ve finished, or by feeling inspired to do further reading to understand the book more. Either way, this ticked the right boxes.
Now I just have to track down The Last Light of the Sun…