I liked Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay’s take on 8th-century China, but it might be the first historical fantasy I’ve read that felt too realistic.
The magic in Under Heaven (shamans, ghosts, etc.) only exists on the margins, yet that isn’t what threw me off. And I respect how much research Kay clearly did on the Tang Dynasty, even though he occasionally delivers his version of the details as bald info-dumps. Mostly, I just wish the protagonist’s decisions and actions mattered more.
Initially, it seems like they will. The book begins with Shen Tai—the second son of a dead general—nearing the end of his mourning period, an interval he spent burying bodies left over from a battle his father directed many years ago. Tai doesn’t discriminate as he works, laying his own peoples’ warriors to rest alongside those of the rival army. To honor this labor, a princess from the opposing nation gives him two hundred and fifty Sardian horses, a gift that will make him a wealthy man … if he can avoid an onrush of assassins long enough to claim it.
So far, so good! But the next chunk of the book is mainly Tai meeting with increasingly powerful people who want his (still-unclaimed) horses. Eventually, he reaches the capital and finds it swirling with more intrigue he’s incapable of influencing. And when a power struggle breaks into the open—a clash based on a historical conflict—Kay’s focus wanders so far from Tai that he’s not even in several key scenes. Ultimately, his horses don’t matter much either.
I wish they had. A less-accurate rendering might have had the Sardians tipping the scale one way or another, perhaps because Tai used them to try and pick a winner. Instead, he’s caught up in events he has little control over. So is his sister, the other primary point-of-view character. These are real-world outcomes … but not necessarily the most satisfying for a fictionalization already altering history in ways large and small.
As I said, though, I still liked Under Heaven. Kay is a skilled writer who made me care about his characters—even when they’re just along for the ride—and the setting is vivid. The history might have hijacked the story a bit, but it remained engaging enough to make me curious about River of Stars, a sequel of sorts set four hundred years later. I’ll be back in this world soon.