Catch up + Under Heaven

It’s been a while since I last posted because I’ve been knocked by a viral infection followed by something nastier which I’m on antibiotics for, so at least I’m getting better.  Three bouts of ill health in as many weeks – massive fail, immune system!

The upshot of this is the amount of reading I was planning to get through; I ended up reading Under Heaven, Willow, The Court of the Air, Temeraire and quite a lot of blogs.  Four books in ten days while I’ve been stuck at home is a pretty miserable count, but most of the time lag I blame on The Court of the Air.  I’ll explain in a bit.

Firstly, Under Heaven.  It was glorious.  I finished it over a week ago and it is still overshadowing everything I’m reading; the ending was moving and beautiful, the writing was wonderfully crafted without being overly descriptive (in earlier works Kay has at times swerved towards being over the top), and all the characters were so well-rendered it was sad to let them go.  There’s something about Kay’s women that makes them immensely pleasing to read about – Li-Mei was terrific, her scene in the cave standing out as yet another eerie and atmospheric moment like the opening beside the lake.

One thing that speaks volumes about Kay’s skill is his shift in tenses when things are occurring from a woman’s perspective – the female perspective is in the present tense.  In the hands of a lesser writer it wouldn’t work, but here it does; not just because it works to highlight the fact that we’re seeing a woman’s point of view in a masculine world, and certainly not because their tales need that undercurrent of tension the present tense often affords, but because it gives the reader a sense of fluidity.  Nothing is quite set in stone, she is mutable, she can still affect the course of events.  Or that’s how I read it, at any rate, especially considering the characters of Rain and Wen Zhou.

While Li-Mei was my favourite character of the book I was delighted that in the protagonist, Tai, there was the perfect balance of the naive avatar for the reader and actual easy-to-get character.  So many fantasy books make the massive, clanging error of having a central character completely devoid of any ability to decide or stand up for themselves, wandering through the plot as passive entities just to show off worldbuilding and plot, but Tai’s personality is clear.  I actually liked him and didn’t feel like I was being manipulated into doing so.

Kay’s main theme is war, the men who go to war and the many casualties; after all, the reason for Tai’s work by the lake is a tribute to his late father, who suffered the memory of the battle that took place there years before.  The lake is haunted by the ghosts of the unburied.  As the book goes on there are other casualties of war, from all walks of life, in all manner of ways.  Kay’s inclusion of a few snapshots of life from some of the “normal” characters, the ones who get caught up in the massive machine of empire and history without making the pages of the history books, adds another layer to the narrative.  So much is easily forgotten when these moments of immensity occur.

The whole work is bittersweet and tremendous.  I am annoyed I won’t be able to read it for the first time ever again.  It was that sort of experience.

After, I wanted something lighter.  I read Willow, the book of the film featuring Val Kilmer, little people and very little sense or logic.  See the next post for that I thought (although I bet you can guess).


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