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Under Heaven

January 24, 2012

Hello, welcome to the first installment of my semi-bi-monthly book review/recommendation/general discussion of a book I love or otherwise feel strong emotions towards. Because I enjoy explaining things that are almost entirely self-explanatory, let me break that down for you for a moment. In a sane world, on a sane blog, “semi-bi-monthly” would mean that something happens either ever month or every four months, depending on which definition of the prefix, “bi,” you use, but this isn’t either of those. Semi-bi-monthly means exactly once in whatever random time frame I choose to use for any particular post. For the rest of the title, it means pretty much what it says: I’m going to be talking about a book.

Tonight, that book is Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. Just to give you an idea of from where I’m coming, here’s a truncated version of the blurb for the book.

In Under Heaven, Kay tells a story of honor and power, this time in a setting that evokes the dazzling Tang Dynasty of eighth-century China.

In recognition of his service to the Emperor of Kitai, Shen Tai has been sent a mysterious and dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses. Wisely the gift comes with the stipulation that the horses must be claimed in person. Otherwise, he would probably be dead already.

I hate that blurb. I hate most blurbs on most books I like. Fact is, I’ll probably hate this post by the time I’m done writing it. There is simply no way I, or anybody else, can communicate the delicacy of the prose and the perfection of the story in this kind of space–or any amount of space, really.

I’ve read books by Kay before. I might even go so far as to say he’s one of my favorite authors. As with any art created in this fallen world, there are good parts just as there are bad parts, both in a moral and subjective quality sense, but his storytelling, his masterful portrayal of sympathetic characters is overwhelmingly great enough to compensate for any bad parts.

That was in his old works, which are numerous, and one would be hard pressed to argue that Under Heaven isn’t his best work to date. It has the characters, deeply sympathetic and richly tied to their world, that have become the hallmark of Kay’s books. It has the meticulous research to make the setting of the novel feel as real as anything experienced in real life. It has a plot that’s genuinely interesting without straying into the realm of the cliche. But all of that is what I’ve come to expect from him. All of that and more is in Tigana, previously my favorite Guy Gavriel Kay book.

The one flaw that has always made me just a little reluctant to place him in my top-tier of authors, among people like Patrick Rothfuss and Fyodor Dostoevsky and others like them, was that his structure was a bit scattered. Scattered is the best word I can think of to describe it. It wasn’t as if the stories he told were incoherent. There were never all that many tangents with no real purpose.* Somehow, I still frequently found myself at the end of a chapter wondering how what had just happened related to the overall plot. In Under Heaven, he’s taken what was a weakness before, and it is now a strength. Never have a read a book better paced.

Pace is a hard skill to master. One doesn’t want to be going so slow that readers become bored, but constant action scenes create their own brand of boredom. Action and dialogue aren’t the only pieces to pace. Introduction of characters is part of it, too. The progress of the main plot is important. Every structure choice from chapters to phrasing affects the pace. Somehow, in this book, Kay manages to balance all of that while making it seem effortless.

The book opens with one character. I’m convinced that that’s the best way to open a book. He’s not just sitting around, though. He’s engaging in a task that is both interesting and unique. The author gives the perfect amount of time for the reader to become acquainted with this character, the main character as it happens, and then he starts having stuff happen to him. But the stuff never happens so rapidly that one loses track of the plot. Each new event is introduced at the perfect time, the time when it will be least overwhelming and most satisfactory. It is a triumph.

I’m reluctant to be more specific in praising this book. It’s one that I believe you should experience for yourself unspoiled. Go read this book. Even if you found this whole discussion hopelessly boring, the book is anything but. Even if you don’t regularly read fantasy, this is a quality piece of literature by any standard. In fact, I’m tempted to just spend Thursday discussing the merits of the books prose and discussing specific quotations. I’ll try to avoid boring you with that, though.

* An appropriate number of tangents put in the right place adds character to the setting and depth to the characters. You wouldn’t want a story where every sentence consisted of two nouns and a verb, would you? And all adjectives and other descriptive words could be considered minor tangents.

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