Guy Gavriel Kay has created his own little niche - books that are part historical fiction, moved slightly to the left, and part fantasy. That is to say, he researches the hell out of a particular time and place, and then writes in a fictionalized version of that setting, frequently with some magical elements, and almost always with two moons.
There was only one moon this time. It threw me off slightly. Until one of the poets wistfully said that he'd always thought it would be nice if there were two moons in the sky.
Under Heaven is set in Kitai, a fictionalized China of the 8th century. It is a story of imperial machinations, revolt, and the journey of one man, Shen Tai, who has lived apart from the world for two years, and must rejoin it at top speed, as he is given a gift that is at once both extremely powerful and extremely dangerous. He is thrown back into the imperial dance, and must learn what the steps are while staying alive (and, not incidentally, avoiding assassination attempts.)
This is a complex book, with many different strands, and I am not going to even remotely try to summarize them here. What I would like to say, more than anything else, is this:
Guy Gavriel Kay is a master at setting up moments that are exquisitely tense and heartbreakingly inevitable.
He writes his characters so well that when a moment balanced on a knife's edge comes, I feel it like all the air is sucked out of the room, and I am observing the scene from inside a crystal. And then someone does something, says something, and my heart breaks and I think, yes, that is exactly what that person would do. It's heartbreaking, it's terrifying, but it is perfect. I didn't know it until this moment, but there is no other way this could have gone. I would never have imagined this happening, but now that it has, it is clear and perfect and painful. And sometimes clear and perfect and lovely.
There are so many of his characters I love, who are on different sides and have different agendas,and sometimes who do terrible things - but because I know who they are and why they do what they do, I still feel affection for them. (With one exception, in Under Heaven. One man's pettiness leads to falls I would have thought unimaginable, and for that I cannot forgive him.)
In a couple of his last books, he has combined this intricate and controlled sense of character with ways of looking at the story from outside, using methods that I have loved. In The Last Light of The Sun, the story will sometimes spin out, for a page, telling us what happened to an extremely incidental character whose life was touched, for good or for ill, by the story going on around them. In Under Heaven, particularly near the end, chapters will often start with how history will regard the events we just witnessed, in a few skillful paragraphs showing how what we just saw will be remembered, and how it will be changed in the remembering.
In the same two books, he has also been playing with the theme that sometimes actions can be heroic and meaningful - and yet change nothing at all. Shen Tai can try to rush into the city on a heroic mission, and yet, in the end, it changes nothing. Opportunities pass by, chance plays a hand, and sometimes things do not happen. Nothing is inevitable. The vagaries of life get in the way.
It was a joy to read this book, even when it hurt.