Historical fiction heavily influenced by the Chinese Tang Dynasty, with a faint brush of the fantastical.
Shen Tai has spent the last two years mourning his father and burying the the dead of a decades-old battle ground. It's a quiet, mostly solitary life, punctuated by monthly supply runs from both countries that fought the war (who seek both to honor his work and to outdo each other in courtesy) and by the wails of the dead. But at last, an old friend visits, bringing news from the capital.
Tai is swept up into the plots and schemes of his empire, while yearning desperately for a way to reclaim his lost love and rescue his sister from a political marriage to barbarians.
This book should have been a lot better than it actually was. The poetry is not particularly good, which is a huge problem when so much of the book is poems. When characters catch their breath at the transcendent beauty of a poem, those poems better be more eloquent than any teenager's fumbling attempts to copy a haiku. The characters themselves are interesting, but Kay doesn't seem all that excited by or emotionally attached to them, and neither was I. The pacing of the plot was rather haphazard--nothing much happens for 400+ pages, and then suddenly WAR and DEVASTATION and FAMINE. (It's so grim and realistic, guys. Ooh, how bout another half-assed poem to capture the ~sorrow~ of it all?) A mob of armed men demands someone's death, and Tai and another character have a THREE PAGE conversation while everyone else stands there watching them. I get that it's a formal, stylized sort of culture, but geez, no mob is going to calmly wait while you have a three page heart-to-heart. The Kanlin (ninja mercenaries with a precise understanding of honor and loyalty) are nearly a deus ex machina at times. And the writing is so damn stilted that I nearly gave up on this book. He loves fragments. He loves comma splices. He loves to have characters exchange words the reader doesn't hear, and then refer to this conversation in self-important tones for chapters until all the juice of the ~enigma~ has been milked out. Blargh!
All that said. This is still Guy Gavriel Kay. Even when his characters are pale retreads of other characters, his poems clunky, his plot less clever than he thinks it is, it's still a damn sight better than the vast majority of fantasy out there. I don't know how closely he followed the Tang dynasty, but he describes a culture in vivid and alluring detail. And there are scenes (as when Tai thinks about his complicated relationship with his brother) that feel true and are eloquent indeed. It's not a book I'd recommend to everyone, but it's worth it for those looking for an ambitious piece of historical fiction.