Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel is once more inspired by Chinese history, this time during the Song Dynasty, almost four centuries after the story told in his bestselling Under Heaven. The dazzling elements of the Song – cultural brilliance, vicious political rivalries, warfare against nomadic peoples, court mandarins versus the military – are rich ground for Kay’s unique blending of fantasy and themes of history. Vivid among a large cast, a young man with a dream of regaining the empire’s lost ‘rivers and mountains’ and a brilliant woman trying to shape a space for herself outside the ‘inner quarters’, where women are expected to live out their lives, confront the challenges and dangers of a world in turmoil. The Song Dynasty’s legacy is prominent in the way Westerners imagine Chinese history to this day and Kay weaves a story that captivates on both an epic scale and within the intimate lives of his characters.
Under Heaven is one of my favourite novels from the past five years and, though I’m not as well read in Kay’s work as I’d like (they’re rainy day novels for me), it’s also one of the author’s best. My excitement for him to return to that world/setting is unabashed and nearly shameful.