It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when and where authors become so acclaimed and successful that they’re basically left to wander freely around their own imaginations. Under Heaven, the new novel by veteran fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay, may mark such a point. That’s both a good and a bad thing: Although the book’s fictionalized history of medieval China’s Tang Dynasty is painted in rich, vivid strokes, it’s also painted in broad ones that often obscure the clip of the plot—not to mention the characters themselves.
Kay’s setup bursts with promise. The son of a general who heroically fought the barbarian hordes threatening his cultured native land of Kitai, Shen Tai is a lapsed fighter who assumes a hermetic existence near the war’s great, final battlefield, still littered with thousands of dead soldiers. His self-imposed task: to bury the bodies, friend and foe both. But an unheard-of gift—250 of the enemy’s finest horses, a fortune to the horse-starved Kitai—sucks Shen Tai out of his one-man monastery and back into the political intrigue, familial strife, and emotional whirlwind he thought he’d left behind.
Since his 1990 epic-fantasy masterpiece Tigana, Kay has been renowned as a consummate world-builder; he did, after all, get his start in the ’70s as the co-editor of J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumous The Silmarillion. But Under Heaven is his first venture beyond a European-based setting. To his credit, he’s tailored his prose and storytelling sympathetically: His voice here is clear and potent, a simple yet stately lilt that’s roughly similar to the one Daniel Abraham recently used in his Asian-accented fantasy series, The Long Price Quartet. But unlike Abraham, Kay seems to have given up on trying to seamlessly blend exposition with forward narrative; the story is often buried under blocks of background detail that aren’t adequately tethered to anyone or anything, as if Kay were so in love with his own world that he sometimes loses sight of those who dwell in it.
Accordingly, there’s a wabi-sabi, out-of-focus kind of carelessness to the arcs of Shen Tai and the rest of the sprawling cast. While some characters—particularly the taciturn female warrior Wei Song and the legendary, drunken bandit-poet Sima Zian—are incredibly compelling, their threads are picked up and dropped sporadically, and seemingly at random. The story’s resolution also feels loose and rushed, but in a way, it would have felt weird if it hadn’t; for all the measured conflict and mannered grace of the book’s milieu, Kay has clearly let the reins go on Under Heaven—and it makes for a galloping but sometimes bumpy ride.