Inspired by the glory and power of Tang dynasty China, Guy Gavriel Kay has created a masterpiece.
It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father’s last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.
You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.
Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already…
This is one of my favorite words ever, and I find myself at a loss for words to describe why I love it. Sometimes, words fail me when I need them most. Oftentimes, it’s because a book is so bad that I don’t even know where to begin listing all the problems. In this case, in the case of my very favorite books, the right words just escape me because there’s just nothing I can say. Because my simple, stupid words are meaningless when it comes to describing the pure, untarnished brilliance of this book. I am simply humbled.
It’s like meeting the one of the great living people on earth, someone one truly admires, like the Dalai Lama. Is there anything one can say that doesn’t come off sounding trite? “I admire everything you’ve done.” Really? Is there anything one can say that doesn’t sound like a vast understatement, that doesn’t make a person wince as they hear the clash of such stupid little words in the presence of such greatness? It is cruel how words often fail us at the most crucial moments.
There are words, then there are words. There is a difference between slapping words together in order to create a coherent sentence versus weaving words together in a composition of unparalleled artistry. A well-woven sentence speaks to the heart, it sings to the spirit. Words can bring forth feelings of outraged anger. Words can sooth a restless mind. Words can be strung together in a simple sentence that makes no relevance in the context of the book, yet is so beautiful in its simplicity. Words can bring that familiar sting of tears to your eyes as you read, and reread, and reread, a passage that is written with such simple poignancy.
There are books with plots that hold your attention span from the first word to the last, filled with action, intrigue, suspense. This is not one of these books. The words in this book are to be savored, because it is poetry in prose. You will find no pretentious writing here. The prose is sparse, simple, direct, no dictionary required. But that’s the power of words, the ability to take a simple vocabulary which a grade schooler can read and assemble it in such a way that the wise can understand. Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of prose.
In theory, this book shouldn’t have appealed to me at all. I am a creature of minimal attention span. My mind, my eye constantly seeks novelty. I multitask every waking moment. Yet this book is loved, and has been beloved by me since I first read it, years ago. This book is not slow in its pace, but it is interspersed with reflections, narratives, observations regarding the deeper meanings underneath.
It is a high fantasy that feels more like a historical. It is the story of a weary soldier who abates his guilt, his ghosts, both real and imagined, by burying the bones of soldiers left where they fell, on a long-forgotten battleground. In return for this unwarranted act of kindness, he is awarded 250 prized horses.
You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank–and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.
The Princess Cheng-wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.
What follows is Shen Tai’s journey, interwoven with others whose fate is destined to weave with his own. In essence, the Princess has awarded Shen Tai with an honor so great that it might send him to his death. Royalty is like that. They never consider the consequences of their grand actions.
We follow Shen Tai as he travels home. The dead are dead, not forgotten, and always restless. We see the politics between courts in play. We meet a Kailin assassin, honor-bound to protect Shen Tai with her life. We see the roots of a revolution take place. There is death. There is betrayal. There is heartbreak. There is sibling rivalry and loyalty to the blood. There is a deep friendship and understanding between two men who should have been enemies. We see women live their lives behind a gilded cage, seemingly powerless, relying only on their beauty, subterfuge, and wit; for them, few men are to be trusted.
There are limits to what a woman in her position can know, however intelligent and committed she might be. There are too many constraints on someone confined to the women’s quarters of a compound or a curtained sedan chair, relying for information on infatuated servants.
There have always been such limits. It is the way of things, and not all men are foolish, though it might seem otherwise at times.
We witness their fates, their separate lives as they intersect, through the simple act of an unparalleled gift. A gift that might destroy a nation.
In my life, I have been a disinterested Buddhist at best, and an angry atheist at worst. I’ve never believed in the concept of a soul. This book makes me feel like there’s more to me than just the physical; if I don’t have a soul, how can something within me feel so much peace?
Branching paths. The turning of days and seasons and years. Life offered you love sometimes, sorrow often. If you were very fortunate, true friendship. Sometimes war came.
You did what you could to shape your own peace, before you crossed over to the night and left the world behind, as all men did, to be forgotten or remembered, as time or love allowed.