Thursday, 18 February 2010

Book Preview: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

[Pre-order this book from Amazon
in the UK / in the US]


They say honesty is the best policy, so let's begin this preview with a little truth-time: if, in the first moments of 2010, there was a single impetus behind my decision to launch The Speculative Scotsman, Guy Gavriel Kay was it. Or, more precisely, Tigana was it.

With the mad rush of the holidays behind me, I wanted to relax with a good book, and for one reason or another, nothing on my shelves seemed to fit the bill. In the time I had spent lurking around the fringes of the speculative community, I'd often heard Kay's name bandied about, and some confluence of my general dissatisfaction with the fiction I'd been reading before Christmas and a timely recommendation sent me to Amazon. A miracle of the postal system meant Tigana arrived in the downtime between the big day and New Year's, and soon after I had gotten to grips with the first few chapters of Kay's dense fantasy epic, I was savouring his novel's every word. You can read more of my thoughts in the first full review to grace the pages of The Speculative Scotsman, but suffice it to say that I was gripped, right through to the last, bittersweet moments of Tigana.

I've since invested in more of Kay's back-catalogue, and though I've struggled to find an opportunity to actually read A Song For Arbonne or Ysabel, I very much forward to a little downtime during which I can do just that.

Realistically, however, I don't imagine I'm very likely to have the chance in the immediate future; certainly not before Kay's new novel has hit bookstore shelves. Under Heaven, his first new fantasy since the aforementioned 2008 World Fantasy Award-winner is very nearly upon us. Though the the reading populace at large will have to wait until late in April for their next Guy Gavriel Kay fix, ARCs of Under Heaven are already doing the rounds with bloggers and reviewers in Canada and the States; here in the UK, meanwhile, advance copies should be upon us within the next few weeks. If I'm lucky enough to recieve one for review here on TSS, rest assured: I fully expect to drop every one of my other critical responsibilities like proverbial hot rocks.

I may only have been waiting a few, short months for another opportunity to immerse myself in another of the lush, historical environments Kay is known to so effectively set his fantasies against - as opposed to the thousand days some long-term fans have suffered through - but my appetite for Under Heaven is no less fully-fledged for that differential. Saying that, the short while I've spent anticipating it, and even the longer period others have, is nothing compared to the length of time the forthcoming novel has weighed on Kay's mind. According to an audio interview with Alex Telander of Book Banter, the esteemed author has himself "been thinking about [Under Heaven] and living with aspects of this since before I published Last Light of the Sun - that’s more than six years ago."

In a publishing environment increasingly driven by the characteristic immediacy of new media such as blogs and e-zines, the ramp-up to Under Heaven's release date isn't likely to mark a quiet, stress-free time for the World Fantasy-winner, but as of now, the manuscript is itself out of Kay's perfectionist grasp at last. In point of fact, in his journal on the wonderful Bright Weavings in late January, Kay even wondered if midday was an appropriate time to pour himself a good single malt.

If by some strange happenstance this preview comes your way, Guy, I say to you: go for it. You've certainly earned a little tipple of the Highland Park.

Some other, excellent tidbits emerged from the aforementioned Book Banter interview - including the likes of this quote, on the voice Kay employs in Under Heaven: "This book [represents] a much more formal society, it’s a much more verbally structured culture; I couldn’t write this one with the tone that I used for Ysabel". But I wouldn't want to be stealing Alex's thunder by repurposing too much of such an stimulating glimpse into what awaits those of us excited by the prospect of Under Heaven, so if you need your anticipation whistle whetting, I'd heartily advise you go here and listen to his excellent interview with Kay for yourself.

Until the reviews begin in earnest, however, your best bet for a taste of the wonders Kay will shortly conjure up comes from the plot synopsis:

"For two years Shen Tai has mourned his father, living like a hermit beyond the borders of the Kitan Empire, by a mountain lake where terrible battles have long been fought between the Kitai and the neighbouring Tagurans, including one for which his father - a great general - was honoured.

"But Tai's father never forgot the brutal slaughter involved. The bones of 100,000 soldiers still lie unburied by the lake and their wailing ghosts at night strike terror in the living, leaving the lake and meadow abandoned in its ring of mountains. To honour and redress his father's sorrow, Tai has journeyed west to the lake and has laboured, alone, to bury the dead of both empires. His supplies are replenished by his own people from the nearest fort, and also - since peace has been bought with the bartering of an imperial princess - by the Tagurans, for his solitary honouring of their dead.

"The Tagurans soldiers one day bring an unexpected letter. It is from the bartered Kitan Princess Cheng-wan, and it contains a poisoned chalice: she has gifted Tai with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses, to reward him for his courage. The Sardians are legendary steeds from the far west, famed, highly-prized, long-coveted by the Kitans."

Doesn't that sound just fantastic?

I don't know that, for me, it'll necessarily be the equal of Tigana - there's always something about your first encounter with an original new voice that's near-enough impossible to compete with - but I've little doubt that Guy Gavriel Kay has another thoughtful, evocative tale to tell, and with all the otherworldly environment of Tang-dynasty China as his backdrop of choice, I, for one, can hardly wait.

Here's to Under Heaven!


Under Heaven
by Guy Gavriel Kay
2010, HarperVoyager: London

[Pre-order this book from Amazon
in the UK / in the US]

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  1. Forget Erikson, read Kay!! A Song for Arbonne actually had me in tears at one point. Mind you, Tigana had me misty eyed several times. GKK is a hugely talented author and I enjoyed every book that I have read. I await my copies of Ysabel and Under Heaven with baited breath.

    So, scrap my votes for Erikson and Wooding (though they are great) take all your unread GKK novels on your hols.

  2. I've only read one Guy Gavriel Kay novel so far, the incomparable Tigana. I've picked up The Lions of Al-Rassan, and I'm dying to get my hands on Under Heaven. Definitely one of my most anticipated novels of 2010!

  3. I was lucky enough to be the recipient of an ARC of this book here in the US. My favorite Kay is by FAR The Lions of Al-Rassan (I don't have the adoration for Tigana that it seems everyone else has). I am leery of mentioning my thoughts on this book here as I think there are many GGK fanboys who may just come to my review to tell me I am evil for saying anything against Kay but... Under Heaven is, in my opinion, a good book but not as good as Lions of Al-Rassan. But, like you, I don't think any Kay book will top my first Kay book :-)

  4. If you haven't by now Niall, you must, MUST, read the Fionavar Tapestry without further faffing about. Use this and Tigana as the benchmark for his new epic. :)

  5. That does sound good. I have been a fan of Kay's since back in high school when I read The Fionavar tapestry. Tigana is an exquisite book (I recommended it to my book club and they loved it), but my favorite is Lions of Al-Rassan. The man can tell a fabulous story and make you fall in love with his characters, even the flawed ones (Poor Dianora!)

  6. I actually have never read Kay's stuff. But I've never heard anyone say they didn't like it.

    If I wanted to start, which book is best?

  7. I've been wanting to read Kay's Tigana for far too long and it's high time that I did.

    I actually listen to a good number of audio books these days thanks to a 1-hour commute each way and was curious if (a) anyone has enjoyed the audio version and would recommend it, or (b) if this was a book that you owed it to yourself to intricately pour over the words (as I suspect it may be)? It's in my queue for next month as we speak in terms of the audio, but either way it's going right up there to the tops of the pile.

    Thanks for reminding me to get to this sooner rather than later, and for the very interesting blog - one Scot to another.