In a land far away and a time long ago, the devious Wen Jian sits inside a silk-curtained sedan chair being carried through the streets of Xinan. Jian is known as Precious Consort, the favoured companion of Emperor Taizu. She is stunningly beautiful and cunningly dangerous.
“Will you take a lychee?” Jian asks the virtuous and virile Shen Tai. “I can peel it for you Master Shen Tai. We could even share it. Do you know the most enjoyable way to share lychee fruit?”
Tai realizes that dallying with the flirtatious Jian could result in his death at the hands of the jealous emperor. But death could also come should he annoy Precious Consort and rebuff her overt sexual advances. What is a young man to do?
This is merely one of the many dilemmas Shen Tai faces in Guy Gavriel Kay’s new historical fantasy novel. The setting evokes the Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China, but Kay calls his imagined land Kitai. It is a place of seductive princesses, cruel villains, brave warriors, unending duplicity, and difficult choices.
Kay is a philosopher at heart with far more to offer than comic book representations of clanging swords and perfumed seductresses. His novels, including Ysabel, Sailing to Sarantium, and those that comprise the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, are filled with the great questions that have bedevilled mankind throughout the ages and continue to gnaw at our psyches. Under Heaven is no exception. Readers accompany Tai on a journey that repeatedly tests his loyalty to family, friends, traditions, country, and honour. Tai makes wise choices, but Kay constantly challenges his readers to ask themselves what they would do in similar circumstances.
When the story opens, Tai has just spent two years honouring the memory of his late father, a celebrated general, by journeying to the scene of an epic battle at a remote mountain lake and burying the bones of thousands of fallen soldiers from the armies of both Kitai and its enemy neighbour, Tagur. Tai’s selfless attempt to calm the restless spirits of the dead has moved the White Jade Princess of Tagur to promise him a gift “to overwhelm an emperor”: 250 prized horses. The gift also turns Tai into a target for those who would kill him to secure the booty. The novel traces Tai’s attempts to fend off his enemies as he travels to collect the animals.
What Kay has created here is a mythic tale in the tradition of Odysseus. Tai must endure heartbreak, sorcery, and civil war to obtain the horses and bring honour to his country. Along the way, he must also save his sister, who is being forced to marry a distant barbarian leader.
Although Under Heaven is primarily the story of a man, it is noteworthy for its many strong female characters. The book could easily have become just another male-centric tale of looting, raping, and pillaging, but Kay’s women refuse to let the men and their actions dominate. There is Wei Song, an unforgettable ninja-like female bodyguard hired to protect Tai. There is Spring Rain, the canny courtesan Tai loves. There is Precious Consort and Tai’s courageous sister, Shen Li-Mei.
Advance publicity material includes a letter from the author explaining why he does not use real historical characters or places in the novel: “I do not know what the real prime minister of Tang Dynasty China thought about at night in the middle of the eighth century,” Kay writes. “I have a pretty good idea of what my prime minister of Ninth Dynasty Kitai is all about and I am happy establishing a space between the invented character and the real man.”
On the surface, that seems like a more honest approach than inventing events and emotions holus-bolus for historical figures such as Genghis Khan, Cleopatra, or Napoleon. Kay’s argument, however, can be turned on its head. He has thoroughly researched ancient China and used that knowledge to create the imaginary world of Kitai. Some of that world includes the customs and attitudes of a real historical period. Others are pure inventions. But which ones? Experts of the era will know. Most of us won’t. Under Heaven does, however, answer a question that echoes one dear to amorous, canoe-loving Canadians: Is it possible to make love in a moving sedan chair? “It can be done,” says Precious Consort.