Kay? Isn’t he a fantasy writer? Sometimes, yes. Tigana and the Fionavar Trapestry are fantasies. But other novels of his are pure historical fiction, except that he likes creating his own events in the past which either did not occur, or might even contradict historical facts. While writers would just alter those events and call it “alternative history,” Kay prefers changing the names of both places and people, and treating it as other-world fantasy. But in fact, except for the name changes and altered events, it reads like pure historical fiction.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in a thinly-disguised Moorish Spain. The Last Light of the Sun is about the Viking invasions of the British Isles. His most recent novel Under Heaven is set during Tang Dynasty China. It tells the story or the three children of famed general Shen Gao, recently deceased, but whose reputation persists: Liu has become principal advisor to the emperor’s first minister; Li-Mei became part of one the entourage of one of the emperor’s minor sons, before Liu convinced the first minister to donate her as wife of a barbarian ruler.
Tai, the second son, is the novel’s main character. After the death of his father, he spends two years at the sight of one of his father’s greatest battles, burying the dead bodies which litter the area. He is alone except for the ghosts of the fallen soldiers, both Kitan (the novel’s name for Chinese) and enemies. He becomes a famous figure through the empire, and is even given a gift of 250 horses by one of the emperor’s daughters who is also a wife of a barbarian king. The horses are a breed so superior to those of the Kitan that Shen Tai immediately becomes a person of major importance to the emperor and his advisors.
Under Heaven is mostly a novel of politics, into which Tai has become intimately-involved. People of importance include:
• Wei Song, a Kanlin warrior who saves Tai’s life early in the novel, and then becomes his protector;
• Wen Jian, a twenty-year old beauty who has become the emperor’s “precious consort,” and the power behind the throne;
• Shinzu, the emperor’s heir, who has a reputation for indolence and drunkenness, but whose true personality shows when political affairs heat up;
• Wen Zhou, the first minister who achieved his rank due to being Wen Jian’s cousin, but who is an enemy of Shen Tai for reasons unknown to him;
• An Li, also called Roshan, is the most powerful general in Kitai in spite of being a “barbarian” rather than a native Kitan;
• Shin Zian, the most famous poet in Kitai, known as the “Banished Immortal,” who becomes a close advisor of Shen Tai.
Although there is ultimately a major war in the novel, Under Heaven is not really concerned with military actions, but rather with the politics surrounding them. This is an outstanding novel, the equal of The Last Light of the Sun, which was my novel-of-the-year in 2004. So far 2011 has been an outstanding reading year, since I have read such classic novels as The City & The City, Julian Comstock, The Windup Girl and now Under Heaven. If only every year could be as good.