Under Heaven: To Kuala Nor

April 7, 2010

When I started the blog, I wanted it to be a place where I didn’t just post news bits, and reviews upon finishing a book, but a place where I could also discuss some of my thoughts on what I was reading at the time. I haven’t been able to do that as much as I would have liked so far, but dang if I’m not going to try. Reading is a very personal experience for me and — for good or bad — I have to involve and immerse myself in what I’m reading or there’s little point in my mind for spending time with a book. From time to time, then, I’ll share what I’m thinking about a book here prior to finishing and I hope you’ll get something out of it. As always, feel free to chime in.

[Minor Spoilers Ahead] Fortunately, where the first chapter of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven is concerned, I’m certainly having no problem immersing myself in the story, what with the lead character’s worthy,  self-induced, act of mourning compelling me forward and with prose like this:

In silver light he looked over at his low writing table, the ink-block and paper, the woven mat in front of it. His swords were against the wall beside it. The scent of the pine trees came through the open windows with the night wind. Cicadas whirring, a duet with the dead.

He had come to Kuala Nor on impulse, to honour his father’s sorrow. He had stayed for himself just as much, working every day to offer what release he could to however small a number of those unburied here. One man’s labour, not an immortal, not holy.

The imagery here, and throughout the chapter, is extremely expressive and beautifully so as he brings to life the fantastical Asian tone and setting of Kuala Nor and the surrounding lands. And as I made note of in my last post on the book, here again our “solitary fool” makes mention of the fact that he is not holy, despite the very admirable actions he is undertaking as the novel opens. Granted, it may very well be the case that Tai is not a holy man, but I cannot help but see the admission as evidence of humility rather than an  indictment of the kind of person he is — or thinks he is (perhaps being unable or unwilling to recognize this humility himself).

Shen Tai has been at the business of burying the dead for two years time now at the site of his father’s last battle. There, digging resting places for the bones of fallen warriors on both sides in the harshest of conditions as way of honoring his father and the ghosts that have wailed so many nights awaiting rest. As the chapter, and as his formal period of mourning draws to a close, Tai is presented a gift nearly beyond measure for his service to the dead, as recognized by the opposing army. The gift is of a caliber that he cannot fathom and how this “gift” effects him, I suspect, will have much to do with how the proceeding chapters play out as Kay brings it home ominously in the chapter’s final lines:

The world could bring you poison in a jeweled cup, or surprising gifts. Sometimes you didn’t know which of them it was.

In passing, I also got a kick out of Tai’s passing comment on shaving one morning before he departs out into the cold. Looking in the mirror he ponders a quick shave, but dismisses the thought after “deciding against such self-abuse.” How many times have I had similar thoughts? Just a fun aside, but it’s one of the many small details that I’m enjoying so far about the book, and one of the many insights we’re given about Tai’s sojourn. It’s a very impressive start and I can’t wait to see how the next chapter plays out. Stay tuned for more.


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