I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;)
Under Heaven has been long overdue for me, to the point when I was practically driven crazy by trying to read anything else. That's how high my anticipation was.
This is beyond what I'm used to from historical China: rather than the chaotic periods of history when the land is split into multiple warring kingdoms, Kay's story is placed at the height of unified Chinese power during the Tang dynasty. Legitimacy is virtually unquestioned, all the people of the empire are brought under one ruler, and the people who aren't can be safely pigeonholed as barbarians. Art and culture are valued on the same, if not higher than, level as military prowess. With the onslaught of the An Lushan Rebellion, the overall narrative is one of a single kingdom's survival through temporary, albeit far-reaching tumult rather than a continuous struggle to bring the kingdom together.
Kay's research is reportedly impeccable, but I figured I'd be the judge of that. My reactions:
1. Wondered at the absence of style names. The assumption seems to be that people were super formal back then, and Kay has people addressing Shen Tai as "son of [insert father name]" which felt weirdly European to me, instead of what the Chinese did use, which was either style names or the titles of whatever civic/military posts they held.
2. Speaking of the last bit, there seems to be very vague distinctions as to the different levels of power people wielded. The conflict between the prime minister and supreme general is based a lot more on petty squabbling than the unique advantages and disadvantages of their respective positions (civil vs. military, emperor's favor, etc.).
3. The incorporation of poetry is stellar, and adds a strong atmospheric edge of authenticity as most of them are taken from actual Tang poetry. I had a lot of fun encountering the ones I recognized, and learning the ones I didn't. Some of the most beautiful and evocative passages are in the sections concerned with poetry, as Shen Tai and the Banished Immortal find solidarity together even as they get drunk.
4. I am very, very skeptical of the idea that several concubines and wives living under a single roof lived quite so harmoniously. Kay gets away with this by making the secondary women he doesn't care about into completely blank slates, most without a single appearance or even a name. Which ignores the fact that, in an unequal power structure where multiple female lives are at a single male's whim, there is an inevitable loss of status, wealth, and happiness for the women who don't win favor. I don't see what excuse a modern author has to be allowed to play "neutral" with historically institutionalized sexism.
5. Kay's admiration of the glittering physical splendor of Tang culture occasionally spills into fetish. I chuckled when he mentioned the "waterfall" hairstyle historically popularized by Yang Guifei, introduced like a cute piece of trivia he wasn't quite done squeeing over yet. Hey man, geeking out over details is my job, not yours. But in that respect, I've got nothing to complain about with regards to accuracy. I only feel that it would have been more immersive not to have Kay repeatedly point out the bits that are supposed to surprise us, as they would have done so naturally.
6. This has less to do with research than adding standard fantasy tropes where it feels completely incongruous. Namely, the mysterious assassin society.
7. Use of "fuck" as an expletive. *eye twitch* Only happened two or three times, but still.
8. Lastly, although I know this is super trivial, I would have loved a detailed historical note from Kay, because no matter which way I count the Chinese dynasties, Tang never comes up as "ninth," always seventh or eighth, dammit! Also, whenever he refers to the First or Sixth or whatever dynasty...I'm just dying to know which specific dynasty he's referring to, so my geeky self can search it up. Also exacerbated by aforementioned counting problem.
Although many found the ending to be rushed, it was actually my favorite part: I like how the nature of a broad summary reinforces the cyclical continuum of history, and the way Kay wrote it reminded me a lot of Three Kingdoms.
I think the main weakness of the book is the lack of depth of motivations. The farther you go up the political ladder, the shallower it gets. Emperor Taizu (historically Xuanzong) is an empty slate. Maybe it's just me, but I don't think you can really claim to have painted a complex epic portrait of a political structure or culture unless you deconstruct the guy at the top of the hierarchy. Of course, it may or may not just be that my favorite TV show does this and Kay does not. Nevertheless, for such a remarkable period of history--an empire at its peak destabilized by rebellion--Kay displays a distinct lack of willingness to question what makes these influential people tick, which was unfortunately what I happened to be the most curious about. To put it simply, what happened? How does a ruler get so disconnected that he doesn't foresee a major revolt that eventually gets big enough to threaten the very sanctity of the dynasty? What's his personality like? What role does that personality play in controlling the lives of millions of people?
What Kay does give us is several very complacent, although poetically written observations on how people inevitably fall victim to the luxury of sensuous pleasure. I guess it's accurate, I just kept thinking about what a spectacular contrast in dramatic tension it would have made if the difference between reality and perception were thrown into sharper relief.
Reservations aside, I'm still intent on reading River of Stars,just to see Kay's take on the Song Dynasty. I secretly wish he would do the Han though.