It’s been a while since I wrote an article in this series and it’s because I wanted to write something positive. However I have until very recently been unable to find any genre fiction that didn’t fill me with a crushing sense of disappointment; I went from the underwhelming books of Joe Abercrombie to the unremarkable but at least interesting in terms of setting Nylon Angel by Marianne de Pierres, and from there tried the Malazan series. The latter showed the most promise but fell too far into the traps of other fantasy in that its setting was so reliant on explanations of things, exposition (some of which was only made really clear in glossaries and appendices) and chunks of verse that weren’t naturalistically slotted into the writing to be truly enjoyable. Once you got over the terminology and the central conceit (that humans resented, rather than welcomed, the interference of the pantheon in their affairs), what was left was a very ordinary fantasy setting to my mind.
Then, however, I read Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay, and found it to be everything I wanted in a fantasy novel. First and foremost, it is barely a fantasy novel by most standards; the setting it depicts is one which, despite not existing, is so closely based on actual historical events and society that it may as well be real. While the term alternate history is generally used to describe events in a real world setting that diverge from known history, I think Kay’s writing is its own form of the genre; fictional versions of an entire country and its history that nevertheless are so scrupulously based to the detail on reality that that transcend simply being “realistic fantasy” ala George RR Martin. Fantasy is traditionally based on mythologies and imagined worlds that use reality as a starting point and point of reference for the departures from the real; Kay, on the other hand, simply reinvents history to avoid being a slave to fact. Were Kitai named China, Under Heaven would be a historical novel – and what supernatural elements there are are so circumspectly described, and so limited to liminal, unknown areas, that their very existence is a matter of debate. A read may read Under Heaven and wonder if there really were ghosts. On the other hand, the land of Westeros and its environs, created in the Song of Ice and Fire series, cannot work in the same way and be transposed into realism; the supernatural and fantastical is too ingrained in it with un-dead, cliffs of ice and dragons (both living and dead).
Comparing, though, Kay and Martin in such a simple way is disingenuous; their intents in writing fantasy are completely different. However, I would argue Kay is in fact more fantastical in his writing; while Martin brings in the expected signifiers of the fantasy genre, Kay’s rejection of them does not lessen his work within it. The very act of creating a world that is entirely credible and accurately depicted in all aspects except its actual existence is pure fantasy. Kay creates his own history, his own mythology, and has in this way something to say about the nature of recorded history. Kitai could have existed. It happened to be called China instead. Westeros could never exist. (This, however, is not to say the setting that cannot exist cannot be believable – Westeros is for the most part believable but fantastical, as is the setting of Eureka Seven as detailed in a previous article).
So Kay rejects the expected constraints of fantasy and puts his own definition to it; rather than creating a simply credible world he creates a realistic one. And as a result, his narrative is similarly realistic. It is, at its core, a quest narrative. A man is given unbelievable wealth but is unable to put it to use. His task is to find some way of dealing with this burden. The subject of this, though, is not a magical artifact (like, perhaps, a ring or three baby dragons) – it is an absurdly large number of horses. The horse in fantasy fiction exists often as a convenient method of transport, almost analogous to a car or bicycle. It is a reasonable assumption that in a fantasy novel there will be enough horses when required to get from one place to another, and not having a horse will generally lead to some kind of adventure because the hero has left an area where there is civilisation. Under Heaven, being set in a country analagous to China, cannot do this. The horse in Kay’s setting Kitai is a status symbol, not native to the area and imported at great cost from foreign lands. The movement and possession of horses is wealth in its most ostentatious and obvious of forms, and to be given literally hundreds as the protagonist is effectively makes him wealthier than royalty.
At its core, Under Heaven is thus a novel about horse-trading. Quite literally. The horse, the ubiquitous mode of transport within the Western fantasy tradition, has become instead a symbol of power and to be given custody of them is both immeasurable wealth and the potential to overturn an entire empire. This is the true strength of the novel; its plot is so down-to-earth and realistic that again, the illusion of realism is sustained; the story again feels like a historical novel rather than a fantastic one. In part this is due to the nature of the dramatic conflict; it is about someone surviving a change in status within a hierachical society rather than challenging a known antagonist. Simplistic hero versus villain stories are something that in my mind hold back fantasy fiction and while other fantasy authors try to write political stories within fantastical settings, the utter rejection of the mythic in Under Heaven sets it apart.
I could write much more about Under Heaven – join me in the next article in this series to find out about how the best fantasy and science fiction makes the unthinkable a matter of course, and how evil is often subtle, dull and quite grey.