For a long time, Guy Kay was a reliably excellent fantasy writer, one of those people whose every book you’d look forward to, because you know it’d be at least pretty decent, and maybe excellent. It’s a select group for me: Pratchett, Duncan, probably still Brust, but not many more people than that.
But then came The Last Light of the Sun , a book so terrible that it scarred me on Kay forever. It was bad beyond just itself — it made me question whether my judgment on earlier Kay was wrong, and made me afraid of opening every new Kay book. With Ysabel , Kay proved he was still capable of writing a book that didn’t suck, fortunately, but Ysabel was also set in the modern world, unlike his standard historical fantasies.
So when I picked up Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven , I was still somewhat nervous. Because this is a full-on historical fantasy, taking place in not-exactly-China retelling not-exactly-historical events with added magic. The good news is, my nervous was mostly unwarranted, because this is not a terrible book. It has a lot of Kay’s familiar virtues: Atmospheric settings, intricate court politics, and a broad sense of historical scope.
But: It also had the weaknesses that killed Last Light. There were the extended “had he but only known” and “so many of us in our lives face moments where we blah blah” asides. There was a sense that Kay was trying really really hard to evoke the kind of dramatic tragedy that he used to draw out so effortlessly. And in general, there’s the feeling that you can see the strings he’s pulling, and can see too clearly the stagehands moving the props around.
The problems are never bad enough to destroy this book the way they destroyed Last Light of the Sun — I really did like Under Heaven, on the whole — but they’re still bad enough to make me wonder if it’s Kay that’s changed or me. I waffle between wanting to re-read his earlier books to confirm that they’re still excellent, and being afraid to re-read them and find out that they’re also so transparently manipulative. And while I’ll still buy and read his next book, I’m still not entirely reassured that it won’t suck.
Oh, hey, also I feel like I should mention for the record that this is the first book I read on the Kindle. Given the size of my library, it’s a certainty that I’ll read more paper books still, but this has to go down as the start of my personal ebook revolution.