Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.
They would like to flute or pipa music and declaim poetry, test each other with jibes and quotes, sometimes find a private room with a scented, silken woman, before weaving unsteadily home after the dawn drums sounded curfew's end, to sleep away the day instead of studying.
Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.
In spring and summer the birds woke him. This was a place where thousands upon thousands nested noisily: fishhawks and cormorants, wild geese and cranes. The geese made him think of friends far away. Wild geese were a symbol of absence: in poetry, in life. Cranes were fidelity, another matter. (p. 21)
Normally, a passage like this, well-written and full of potential symbolic meaning for the novel ahead, would appeal to me. But sometimes, for some readers at least, a story can appear to check off each of those imagined boxes of enjoyment and still fail to engage and satisfy. Sadly, Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven was precisely that sort of novel that I could choose any particular element and say it's the sort of thing that I'd want to read, yet when examined as a whole, it fails to please. Perhaps some might think it unfair to review a book solely on how the critic engages with it, but in this case, I think indulging myself in exploring just why it failed to work for me might provide others, those more inclined to love this work, more insight into the novel itself.
Most of Kay's novels recast events and locales from our histories. In the only two previous novels that I've read, the two volumes of The Sarantine Mosaic, I noticed that Kay was perhaps a bit too faithful to the source material (early 6th century Byzantium during the reign of Justinian I). The saying "bad artists borrow while great artists steal" comes to mind in this situation and also for the current novel, which is an analogue of Tang Dynasty China. Kay is not a "borrower," but neither does he "steal." Rather, he appropriates the historical material, which leads to several occasions where it felt to me that he was too true to the real historical setting when setting up the narrative tensions and plot developments for Under Heaven.
This, of course, might be too subjective of a criticism for many readers. For others, knowing that there are dynastic struggles fought out through means very similar to those of this period of Chinese history creates anticipation that, for them at least, will be amply rewarded by the novel's end. Yet for myself, this felt a bit too antiseptic and derivative, perhaps due to seeing early events falling too neatly into expected places because of my casual awareness of this period of Chinese history.
Kay is a lyrical writer; the passage quoted above evokes mood nicely. Yet his characterizations did not appeal to me precisely because they felt a bit too far polished and remote for the situation at hand. It is not often that I read gorgeous prose and feel as though I were reading something antiseptic rather than something vibrant and alive; I did in this case, however. I can appreciate what he does with the narrative and how it feels as though this were a chronology of a time that never was, at least not under those names, yet I do not feel moved by what I have read.
These criticisms perhaps give the impression that I found Under Heaven to be a poor, derivative work. Although I did find elements to be too similar to actual historical events and personages, the novel is the sort of story that would appeal to a wide range of people: those looking for a sad, beautiful story; readers who want a well-constructed plot leading toward a definite end; and those who value distinct and dynamic characterizations. However, for myself, Under Heaven just was less than the sum of its parts and my enjoyment was dampened considerably by the flaws that I note above. I can understand why it was chosen as a World Fantasy Award nominee and I would not be angry if it were chosen as the winner, yet I just cannot help but marvel at how a novel can contain so many elements that typically appeal to me as a reader and yet as a whole fail to make a favorable impression.