I just recently read Under Heaven, a spectacular book written by this guy right here.
That smug bastard. Look at him. What’s that? Why do I sound bitter, you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.
Under Heaven was amazing. I was mezmerized by this book. The prose, the characters, the world. It was the perfect blend of the real and the fantastic. It was a damn fine book. And it was very close to the kinds of books I’d like to write. It’s history, really. Heavily inspired by history, anyway. Kay is even more unabashed about his unrelenting borrowing of real-world fact than most. He totally understands what he’s doing in his books, and he has damn good reason for it. He writes what I want to write, albeit with a bit less snark and general rudeness.
A little about the book then.
Under Heaven is a fantasy based on the Tang period in China. In particular Kay was heavily influenced by the poetry of the time, and it shows in his writing. Not only does his book contain a fictionalized representation of the great Tang poet Li Bai, but his words and world are heavily inspired by the poetry of that same man. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, Li Bai’s poetry was the initial impetus for the writing of this book.
Kay does a lot of really cool things with his writing. He has no qualms about switching to omniscient mid-chapter, even stepping out of the time period of the story and analyzing the events of his plot from the viewpoint of his world’s future fictional historians and antiquarians. His characters are well crafted, though they seem to be more vehicles for the time period than truly inspiring personalities. Still, that’s alright in a book like this, in which much of the wonder and enjoyment is derived from the fantastic world that the characters inhabit. Kay even messes around with tense, writing his male characters in the usual third person limited past tense, and his female characters in a sometimes-omniscient third present tense, so that the actions in the female chapters have both a sense of immediacy, and a strange sense of distance. Very cool stuff that you don’t typically see in a fantasy novel.
So basically, Kay is making me look bad. Pathetic, even. This clever son of a bitch even talks about his reasons for writing historically-inspired fiction, and they’re good ones. I’ll link you now to an essay written by Mr. Kay: Home and Away. Follow that link, and read the words contained therein. Do you see? Do you see now, gentle readers? Guy Gavriel Kay writes in that essay the same things that I’ve written about on this blog, but better. This essay of his? This is how I discovered that Kay is not only a man after my own heart, but also a man I am destined to destroy. In fact, disregard my previous request: don’t read the essay on the other side of that link. Just read my thing about fantasy again and pretend that it–you know, sounds better.
I do, however, have one complaint about Under Heaven, a complaint which I shall cherish, it having prevented the creation of a near-perfect fantasy novel that would have forever dashed my hopes of creating anything of even comparable quality. It seems at times that Under Heaven, as well as Kay’s other books, perhaps take a little too much from one period and region of history. They end up feeling like direct copies of actual historical events. I’d prefer a little more of a grab-bag approach to using history in a fantastic setting. That is to say, you can evoke a period of history and realistic events/cultures/characters without borrowing exact details and merely changing some names. This isn’t to say that Kay’s approach to fantasy is incorrect, but perhaps the Martins and Abercrombies of the world are a bit more creative with the content of their fictional worlds.
Alright, that’s all for now. More updates on my first draft in a short while.