Two Books, First Impressions

I just finished two books that really have nothing in common except incidentals: they are both huge and both have been mentioned recently at Here in the Bonny Glen.

I suppose they have and one other thing in common. Each is by an author that I would put on a list of writers who have been most influential to me: A.S. Byatt (I wrote my senior thesis on her novel Possession: A Romance) and Guy Gavriel Kay (I think my favorite fantasy author after Tolkien and Lewis, which is seriously high praise.)

I made the mistake of requesting both Under Heaven and The Children’s Book from interlibrary loan at the same time. And they came in at the same time and I stared at them sitting on the counter and wondered if I was insane. (Probably the librarians, who know me well because we are in there all the time, wondered the same.)

I began with Under Heaven because my sister was eying it hungrily and I knew I’d better finish it before she grabbed it (I’m a much faster reader than she is and waiting for her to finish would have been excruciating.) Also because I was looking forward to it more. I can’t believe it took me so long to get to it. Of course I finished it in just over 24 hours. Not so good for the laundry or the kids but this was a hard book to put down.

Under Heaven is a definite departure for Kay, though it is also very much in keeping with his other works. Like all of his novels except his very first trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, it is set in a fantasy world that is parallel to a specific historical time and place rather than in a secondary world. This device of creating a fantastic other world that still echoes our own allows Kay to explore specific historic milieus and themes but also allows him to indulge in non-historical what-ifs and to manipulate his characters and time line of events to suit his narrative purposes. Not being tied to historical accuracy as a historical novelist is allows him a much freer reign to explore historical trends, motifs and themes.

Kay also incorporates elements of fantasy and the supernatural into these worlds he creates, to greater or lesser degree. The trend has been that his earlier novels were most fantastical and his later novels have been more and more realistic with only slight elements or hints of the supernatural.

Unlike his previous historical fantasies, which are all set in the West, in Under Heaven Kay moves to the Far East. Under Heaven’s historical parallel is Tang dynasty China.

The central premise of the story is a wonderful plot device. The younger son of a famous general, Tai, is given a gift worthy of an emperor, 250 western horses. The gift could make his fortune or get him killed. It catapults him from being a virtual nobody into the center of imperial politics, with all its intricacies of ritual and protocol, not to mention deadly alliances and intrigues. 

In Under Heaven there are many parallels in plot and characters to Kay’s beautiful and intricate two-part Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, which is set in a fantastic version of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian. Both are stories about empire and rebellion. Both include an array of strong, beautiful women who are politically influential—even though they do not hold office—because of their ability to manipulate or partner with powerful men with whom they have sexual relationships of one sort or another.

I’m still sifting through Under Heaven. It is an interesting departure and at times I was able to see much more of Kay the author peeking through. I wasn’t always as convinced that the characters were really Chinese in that they didn’t feel different enough from his other characters.

I think Kay is not as well known or as widely appreciated as he should be. Very few of the fantasy aficionados that I know have even heard of him.

Note: I would caution those who have not read Kay before but are interested in trying him that all of his novels have strong sexual content. I don’t think it is gratuitous; but if you’re easily disturbed by such things, well, use your own judgment. For the same reason, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Kay for younger readers.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

Lissa says: “Byatt�s writing is incredibly lush, and I was fascinated by the history. But it�s a really, really dark book. Sordid, in some ways. Unsettling. Real, I think, though it�s sad to think so.”

I thought Lissa might have understated how sordid it was. I almost put the book down several times in the beginning and am not sure why I continued except that the art fascinated me. Not so much the narrative art as the depictions of the various artists. That�s one of the things that has always attracted me to Byatt, the way she writes about art and writing.

At first I thought most of the sexuality was not only sordid but completely gratuitous. It just felt thrown in and I wasn�t sure why. By the end, though, I saw that it was mostly a part of the greater tapestry. In part it was a thread in the social history Byatt was writing. Fascinating to see how many of the social trends that I think of as belonging to the 20th century had deep roots in the Victorian era. I still think it was more graphic than it needed to be; but now I can at least see a narrative purpose.

A few nights ago I had a dream in which I was back at college and in a discussion vehemently promoting NFP and excoriating artificial birth control. An interesting subconscious reaction to all the political discussions. I kept wanting to yell at the well-meaning but misguided characters that they had no idea what evils they were unleashing.

I’d love to hear what anyone else thinks of the novel.

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I did feel that the ending was somehow darkly satisfying. I didn�t expect the book to end with anything like a comforting conclusion but the irony was the war brought many of the characters together in a way that was inconceivable before the social fabric was torn by the horrors of the trenches. That final dinner scene with everyone around the table, shell shocked and haunted by dreams but together as a family was really a masterful twist. Of course it was also haunted by the image of that other household with Olive and Humphrey, which did not have the family coming together but instead was blown apart into individuals hiding from each other in a haunted house.

3 Responses to Two Books, First Impressions

  1. Colleen August 23, 2010 at 10:52 am #

    We haven’t gone to that aquarium yet.  But we love going to the Boston Museum of Science whenever we can score passes from our library.  With the passes it’s $5 per person up to 4 people (and then the little ones are free until age 2 I believe).  Did you all get any kind of discounts for the aquarium?  My kids would love it!

  2. Sharon August 22, 2010 at 11:05 am #

    My son who is doing his Masters in Urban Planning was most interested in the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy network of parks in Boston.

  3. Melanie Bettinelli August 23, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    Sharon,

    It really is a great example of urban planning.

    Colleen,

    Sadly, no. The library told us the passes are only good during the school year. So not until September. Since Dom’s vacation is now, we decided to go ahead and do it, even though it wasn’t cheap. (She also said it’s still pretty expensive even with the passes, though.)

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