Much as I look forward to each new episode of "Game of Thrones" and the less-frequent but even more engrossing books in George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series on which the HBO show is based, epic fantasy's Medieval settings can get old. There's nothing inherently wrong with doublets, broadswords and castles, of course, but there's also no reason why so many works in the genre have to adopt them, either. Even novels that deliberately try to break the conventions established by J.R.R. Tolkien and T.H. White have a hard time establishing worlds with a non-European flavor.
Or so I thought until I stumbled upon Guy Gavriel Kay's "Under Heaven," a bewitching tale set in the invented country of Kitai, which is closely patterned after Tang Dynasty China. It was a meeting shaped by audiobooks, since what I was looking for when I found it was a long multi-character story read by my favorite narrator, Simon Vance. Vance has taken me through a dozen books by Anthony Trollope, the entire "A Dance to the Music of Time" sequence by Anthony Powell and miscellaneous other novels by Dickens, Hilary Mantel and V.S. Naipaul. To my ear, he strikes exactly the right balance between distinct characters and the unified sensibility of a third-person omniscient narrator. When I crave the pleasure of being entirely enveloped in the imaginary world of a long novel, I want Vance to read it to me.
Kay has written other series set in European-inspired worlds (also narrated by Vance in their audiobook editions), but it was the Asian ambience of "Under Heaven" that drew me. A sequel, featuring wholly different characters and based on the Northern Song Dynasty of over 100 years later, has just been released, "River of Stars." If "Under Heaven" took place in a semi-mythical world of spells, heroes and legends, "River of Stars" transpires in a highly sophisticated culture -- the Kitai think of themselves as, above all, "civilized" -- in which courtly skills and palace intrigue have taken precedence over military prowess.
It's also an empire diminished by the Mongol-like tribes of the northern steppes, who have captured 14 border provinces and demand regular tribute. The novel's two main characters are Ren Daiyan, a clerk's son who has his heart set on reclaiming Kitai's greatness, and Lin Shan, a young woman who, contrary to the custom of the times, has been well-educated by her doting aristocratic father. As Ren Daiyan daringly maneuvers himself into the upper ranks of the army, Lin Shan's exceptional calligraphy and poetry make her a favorite of Kitai's art-obsessed emperor -- not necessarily an advantage in a court teeming with ruthless rivals.
Here you'll find all the scheming and skulduggery that give "Game of Thrones" its zest, refined to the subtlest of arts. Kay invokes a world of stylized manners and deadly gambits, infused with an aesthetic founded on the most exquisite appreciation of the beauty and melancholy of the natural world. One of Vance's fortes is conveying understated irony, and it serves him very well here. He acquits himself equally well with Kay's landscape descriptions -- not something I typically enjoy much in novels, but so evocative here you feel you're breathing the autumn mist as it rises from the bamboo groves. Vance can sure work a pause, too, whether he's using it to press an unspoken threat or to invoke a delicate sorrow.
You don't need to read "Under Heaven" to appreciate "River of Stars," but why deprive yourself of so much delight?
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