Under Heaven

I Grew Up on Trashy Fantasy Novels

While I often write about science fiction, I actually grew up on trashy fantasy novels. Well, maybe not quite trashy. Certainly formulaic. More than one Dragonlance novel imparted a subtle grace to my bookshelves as I grew up. Seemingly the very definition of stereotypical characters, written as part of the TSR Dragonlance roleplaying game. This is certainly not to impugn the writing of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. The character of Raistlin for example, provides an interesting look at the balance of morality. Long after I stopped reading the tales of Raistlin and Caramon, I've continued to read other series by these two. The Rose of the Prophet trilogy was particularly memorable, and took a somewhat more nuanced approach to morality and religion, showing the power of the gods as different aspects of an integrated whole, and the quest to regain balance.

The Darksword trilogy took a different look at magic and technology, again with elements of self-sacrifice. This series was memorable for me as being my introduction to the idea of a city inside a bubble.

One of the most important novels I believe either author has written is actually Tracy Hickman's novel The Immortals, which examines quarantine death camps for those inflicted with AIDS. This novel is actually science fiction, not fantasy, but the message it contains is a powerful message against hatred and brutality.

Other series I read growing up included Anne McCaffery's Pern novels. In grade 6, we actually studied the Harper Hall trilogy in class, which was the first time I studied a book for class which I had already read.

I was also a fan of Raymond E. Feist's Magician series. The Magician: Apprentice and Magician Master, as well as the Empire trilogy cowritten with Janny Wurts are still among my favourites.

David Eddings' Belgariad was fun, although again it tended to oversimplify some things. The whole "this country is a jungle, that one is a swamp" thing sort of seemed a little like the Ice Plant Hoth, the Desert Planet Tatooine after awhile. Definitely an epic fantasy.

Among the more recent fantasy series have been those which more closely follow historical periods. Guy Gavriel Kay's works are great. Tigana is a great novel about the importance of memory. His most recent novel, Under Heaven, is a great story influenced by Chinese history.

I certainly can't fail to mention Jack Whyte, who has written one of the most interesting tales in the Arthurian legend, covering the span of time before Arthur is crowned king. Whyte's novels are told mostly from the viewpoint of Merlyn, but in a way which completely avoids the use of magic, in a much more realist setting.

Under Heaven

Disclaimer: I received an advance review copy of this book from Penguin Canada My first experience reading the work of Guy Gavriel Kay was a borrowed copy of the Fionavar Tapestry. My copy of the book has since wandered off into other hands. Later, I discovered that this author was the Guy Kay whom Christopher Tolkien acknowledged for his aid in the editing of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. While the Fionavar Tapestry, and his 2007 novel Ysabel meld fantasy with modern day characters, most of Kay's novels merge fantasy with historical fiction, and remain entirely in a fictional world.

As is often the case in his novels, Under Heaven takes place at a turning point in history. We are presented with a land that can go in different ways. The sense of nostalgia of the end of a golden age is here, and so is the sense that the future cannot be foreseen.

Kay presents the concept of balance in all things to be a central focus of Under Heaven, and this can be seen throughout the text. Many characters in the novel are paired, as if to balance the forces. When the balance is broken, things begin to fall apart. Tai's initial act of piety, burying the bones of both sides of past battles, is emblematic of this theme of balance.

Someone with more knowledge of Chinese history than I likely has knowledge of the period of history Kay uses as the starting point for the novel. The parallels are there, I'm sure, in the broad strokes.

I enjoyed this story more than I did Ysabel. While I did not find it quite as poignant a story as Tigana, once again Kay has written another historically based fantasy. If you've read and liked some of Guy Gavriel Kay's other novels, you will want to pick this one up.