Recent Review: Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’ve fallen down on the review portion of my site, but I have been reading, so it’s time to begin to catch up.

For a lover of well-written fiction, fantasy, and orientalia in general, Under Heaven is a knockout. I can appreciate Kay’s desire not to be classified as a genre writer. Though his story may closely rely on and follow historic figures and their paths, nations, and, well, history, they are not historical novels. Under Heaven is based on the 8th century Tang Dynasty and the events leading up to the An Shi Rebellion. If you enjoy even the sense of historical fiction, this is a tale for you.

The story follows Shen Tai, the second son of a renowned general of Kitai, who is given 250 prized prized horses from the Kitan Empress of the neighboring Taguran Empire to honor his work burying the dead of both sides at a battleground that is still haunted by the ghosts of the slain soldiers.

The horses themselves–coveted for their use and beauty as they are–pose a problem for Shen Tai, and involve him in struggles with politicians and the noble houses that are related to and allied with the Kitan Emperor. At the same time, the horses’ value gains him entry to their world, allowing him to form friendships with many of them, making enemies of some.

He leaves his cemetery work and makes his way toward the capital, Xinan, protected by Wei Song, a female Kanlin warrior, who stays by his side through thick and thin and several attempts on his life.

Of course, there are other plots. There’s Shen Tai’s sister Li-Mei, sent north by her older brother Shen Liu to be married off to a leader of a northern tribe in order to advance Liu’s career. That match thankfully goes awry as her escape is made possible with the help of a curious man who speaks to wolves, who considers his soul part-wolf. Then there’s Shen Tai’s first love, Spring Rain, who finds herself concubine to a courtier plotting Shen Tai’s death, and the An Li rebellion, and disease and famine, all vividly described.

Shen Tai’s story arc has personal, familial, and national repercussions, and so much danger. Loss, honor, friendship, and love come together, sometimes in a seeming slow dance, sometimes slamming together as if by magic, which also exists in this fictional land.

A man of action, thoughtful tactician, sometime scholar, awed by his heroes, Shen Tai is an exceptional, humble, and human hero in his own right.

Kay’s writing is what drew me to this novel. His command of language is wonderful, powerful, lyrical, and at the same time a perfect fit for this Chinese fantasy.

While I have other novels to review, the next novel in this series will certainly be one of them.

 

Guilt

In a recent writer’s exercise prompt, we were asked to create a character who had done something truly awful, and then see if we could induce readers to sympathize with that character despite his despicable act.

Do you feel some compassion for him?

Guilt, by Donna Rubino, copyright 2016

The killing was easy. Even living with the knowledge he’d done it wasn’t hard. He told himself he had no conscience; had been born without a guilt gene.

When the farm house burned, he’d sat on a tractor near the barn and watched it go up in flames—slow to catch, but then the whole thing—wood siding and roof shingles, all his ma’s homemade curtains and pa’s handmade furniture seemed to pass little spits of fire one to another like dinner servings around the table until a final belch, like Uncle Harry’s after Christmas dinner, sent a fireball skyward.

It had been fascinating the way the roof fell in with a whoosh, and sparks and cinders flew in the sky like the fourth of July fireworks. The walls eventually fell in too, blanketing his parents’ bodies, but the memory of his ma’s stare would go with him to his grave. Not that her look of disappointment made him feel guilty, no, it had only added to his frustration. He wasn’t a farmer and all their telling him he was wasn’t going to change that.

He’d walked into the fields, his ma’s last words, “you always were a mess,” reverberating in his head, and sat, hidden by towering cornstalks when he heard the fire brigade come, but they were way late; and no one even looked for him because he was supposed to be at a cattle sale a hundred miles away.

He sold the farm—every last acre—to developers. They made him a wealthy man.

After that, he’d worked hard to build a business, not that he was running from his ma’s accusation. No. More like he was showing her she was wrong. He invested well, married better. His son was 20 now and at college, a serious, industrious boy like his wife. His daughter Lily was 16 and a handful. She was a dead ringer for his ma; he remembered how she looked in that old wedding photo on the parlor wall. Since that first moment infant Lily had clapped her fingers around his, he was lost to her. Some time early on, Lily’d developed the habit of staring at him, squint-eyed, lips pressed firmly together just like his ma had whenever she’d disapproved of something he’d done.

He told himself it wasn’t guilt that made him keep bailing her out when she got arrested for underage drinking, or busting up a department store when they caught her shoplifting. He did it because she was his daughter and he loved her; and besides, she’d probably inherited his unguilty gene. There was something to be said for that.

But the day she died near killed him.

The police had called. She’d led them on a chase at speeds closing in on 100, from the interstate to the local highway to the back roads that led to the dammed river that protected the town from flood.

On the way to the hospital he and his wife passed her car—what was left of it—wrapped around a tree, the front of it split in two right into the front seat, the engine sitting beside the car as if it had been carefully placed.

His wife raced into the hospital while he parked the car, seeing Lily in the rear view mirror as he backed into a spot, hearing Lily’s baby giggle as the tires squealed against the curb.

In her room in ICU, he couldn’t see much of her. Her head was swathed; there were tubes and machines, more bandages and casts, winches and safety bars protecting every part of her. He swallowed the urge to scream as he sat in a chair beside her. All those beeps, buzzes, and whirring pumps. His wife was speaking quietly with a doctor.

Was this why you raised a child? So she could bedevil you? Tear out your heart? So you could try to save her over and again and still she was hell-bent on suicide? He remembered the time she jumped out of the old oak tree and broke both ankles; the time she tried riding her bike over the earthen dam at high water and was swept away and almost drowned.

He touched her hand. It was barely warm. He slid his fingers under her palm.

She turned her head toward him, and, despite intubation, pressed her lips together, eyes squinting his way. And then her lips parted. “Mess,” she said, and flat-lined.

A pain skewered his heart, a fire hotter than the one he’d set that night long ago. He heard a scream, but only realized it was his as his head hit the floor.

The birth of a minor character

Among the many rules for creating good fiction are these: that conflict must ratchet up the tension continually throughout the story, and that all characters—even bit-part players—should be fully fleshed out. They should be physically described—even if it’s only in shorthand, and have a backstory that sets them firmly in the story. Paramount, they must have a reason to be there.

And so Father Thomas Roos elbowed his way into The Luck of Two Magpies after another minor character, Father Cletus of Escomb, was murdered.

I knew nothing about him and so I resorted to my usual method for familiarization, I asked him questions. Here are his answers.

I am Thomas Roos. I was born and raised in Bishop Auckland, a wealthy market town in the Durham diocese and home to the Durham Prince Bishops’ Auckland Castle. My father and mother and their siblings were born and raised here. My closest companion as a lad was my cousin Cletus. We attended the school supported by the Church of St. Andrew in Bishop Auckland.

When Cletus was 6, his father was gored to death by a boar. When Cletus was 8, his widowed mother remarried, this time to a farmer met at market, and moved with her children to Escomb, a separation that affected me greatly. My own father was not an easy man to please, and though I am chastened to admit it, often I did bully my cousin Cletus to feel some sense of empowerment.

In time, we did both became priests. I did so to escape my fate as father’s whipping boy, but more so because I was ambitious. My cousin Cletus, who loved letters from the first time he put chalk to slate, entered the priesthood because he had no talent for anything but ‘scribe-ing.’

I met Father Justin at a synod in Durham. As I sensed the same sort of ambition in him, and in truth was impressed by his royal stature, I applied for the position as his secretary, and was accepted. Father Justin knew I was acceptable to the King as trustworthy for passing messages, but ittle did Justin know but that our King, ever suspicious of his cousins Beaufort because they were his Uncle John’s progeny, had recruited me to spy on Father Justin.

And now, my ambition may lead me to outdo Father Justin in bringing down the House of Grifon and in gaining greater favour with His Grace King Richard. I was on my way to accomplishing this when I made myself agreeable to Lady Elisa. Her trust enabled me to spend time at Grifon’s writing desk, sampling his ledgers. This is the way to bring Grifon down—not through reporting treasonous activities, but by proving the man withheld monies owed to the King. It would be a triple satisfaction. Bringing down Grifon, besting Father Justin, and gaining justice for my cousin’s murder, for I am certain that either Beaufort or Grifon ordered it.

Whether he succeeds or not, we’ll have to wait to see. As of now, Father Thomas has gone silent.