I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
Ren Daiyan was still just a boy when he took the lives of seven men while guarding an imperial magistrate of Kitai. That moment on a lonely road changed his life—in entirely unexpected ways, sending him into the forests of Kitai among the outlaws. From there he emerges years later—and his life changes again, dramatically, as he circles towards the court and emperor, while war approaches Kitai from the north.
Lin Shan is the daughter of a scholar, his beloved only child. Educated by him in ways young women never are, gifted as a songwriter and calligrapher, she finds herself living a life suspended between two worlds. Her intelligence captivates an emperor—and alienates women at the court. But when her father’s life is endangered by the savage politics of the day, Shan must act in ways no woman ever has.
I was almost scared to start this book, knowing that it has been less than a month since I read Kay's Under Heaven, which I absolutely adored. But my hold came in at the library and I plunged in quickly.
And I love it every bit as much. There are references to the first book, but not so many that it would bother someone who hadn't read UH. I love the historical fantasy setting--Ancient China. It's a world that I know very little about, but Kay's version feels very authentic and I feel like I know a little more about Chinese history than I did before reading them.
This book takes place significantly later than the events of UH, but the world is still very recognizable and familiar. I loved both of the main characters, but especially Lin Shan. I adore the way that Kay writes women. They are smart, they are resourceful, they have goals and purposes of their own, and they are real people. He really doesn't write them any different from the male characters, except that they are restricted by their culture. Bingo! So many male authors write female characters as if they are aliens, instead of good old Homo sapiens inhabiting the other gender.
The ending is somewhat ambiguous, but it works for me. It left me with exactly the same pleasant melancholy that I experience when I read the King Arthur cycle. That little ache in the heart, wishing that things would have worked out better, but knowing that was impossible. I treasure that feeling and my favourite books produce it.
I am really looking forward to reading more of Kay's work.