Under Heaven feels so much like a traditional Guy Gavriel Kay novel, through and through. The contrasting dangers of journeying through civilization and the wilderness. The honoured, hyper-perceptive outsider who is forced into navigating the politics of the nobility. The catastrophic, civilization-rending event that slowly develops from the margins of the story, emerging to take centre stage in the last third. The long-separated loves and simmering rivalries that end in missed connections, without ever being addressed head-on. Good men being forced into bad decisions by prideful, incompetent superiors and relatives. The power of beautiful, hyper-intelligent women behind the throne.
That said, even if it was more of the same, I had fun. It’s been a while since I’ve had a Kay novel that I really sank into. I didn’t enjoy The Last Light of the Sun nearly as much as the Sarantium books, or The Lions of Al-Rassan, and I haven’t read Ysabel yet. I also liked the poetry more than I thought I would – there was something amusing about a society that values poetry to the extent that it institutionalizes it – makes writing it a requirement of its civil service. I couldn’t help but think of my brother having to write verse.
I also thought the thematic interplay between Taoism and Confucianism was well done. It wasn’t exactly subtle, but it was done well, and it grounded and illuminated the abstract problem our hero was dealing with.
I’m 200 pages into The Wise Man’s Fear. I loved the early parts of The Name of the Wind, but once I finally realized that most of the book (and the next two) were going to be devoted to the flashback, I cooled slightly. I understand the important grounding that the Tarbean and University sections provided, but it ended up seeming slow and monotonous. I was really hoping that the momentum that The Name of the Wind gathered towards the end, with the road-trip, and then Kvothe finally getting out from under his money problems, would be maintained in The Wise Man’s Fear, but I was disappointed to find, right from the start, that Kvothe is still at the University, and in debt yet again, and still feuding with Ambrose, still playing his music in taverns and struggling to meet with Denna. These 200 pages have been entertaining to read, but at the same time, they very distinctly feel like a retread of old ground. Hopefully things will pick up again soon.