Saturday, June 1, 2019

Romance In Fantasy Fiction: Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Under Heaven” & When Your Ship Doesn’t Sail


Introduction: #YOR #RIFF

Just to recap, I have dedicated 2019 as my Year of Romance (#YOR) here on Supernatural Underground, specifically Romance in Fantasy Fiction (#RIFF). Because as I indicated last month, Fantasy is how I roll. :D

I began in March with JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings (aka when romance is missing-in-action), continuing in April with LainiTaylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which is romance of the kind I categorize as “my enemy, my love.” Last month, I featured Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemasterseries, with the additional tagline of “Constancy Amid Tumult.”

As I indicated at the outset, this series is all about my personal favorites as opposed to any sort of endeavor to faithfully document the evolution of romance in Fantasy, or hone in on its most significant examples. I’ll include this reminder from time to time, just in case you’re wondering why your personal favorites, or various landmark works, haven’t been mentioned yet. ;-)

However, one thing I am trying to do with the #YOR #RIFF series is alternate older works with more recent publications. So I started with Tolkien (mid 1950s), leapt forward to Laini Taylor (2011), then it was back to the late 1970s for Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy. By doing this, you may get some sense of how romance has manifested in the genre since Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings. If that adds additional interest for readers, then so much the better  I’m entirely good with that!

For now, however, onward to our June feature, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, which was published in 2010.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven:
Li-Mei & Meshag’s Tale 
or ‘When Your Ship Doesn’t Sail’

Also known as: When The Stars Don’t Align, aka It Could Never Be – even though you, as reader, would really love to have that ship sail!

By way of context, “shipping” is a fandom phrase, in which fans of a series or show advocate for characters to get together romantically. If the series does end with your preferred characters getting together, then your “ship” has sailed. In other cases, it may sink without a trace… One well-known example of “shipping” (where the ship did not sail) is from the original animated show Avatar: The Last Airbender, in which fans shipped Katara and Zuko, arguing for their “ship” until the end. J

So that probably gives you an idea, if the tagline didn’t already give it away, of where this is going… ;-)

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven is a Fantasy loosely based (as I understand it) on events during China’s Tang dynasty. Like most of Kay’s novels, there are several point-of-view (pov) characters and – in this novel, anyway – several important romantic relationships. My personal favorite, however, is the story of Li-Mei and Meshag.

Li-Mei is a noblewoman of the Kitai (i.e. China, Middle Kingdom) empire, who has been adopted into the imperial family for the specific purpose of being married off, as a gift or tribute bride, to one of the nomadic, barbarian (to the Kitai, anyway) tribes (the Bogū) from beyond the Great Wall. Needless to say, her opinions on this arrangement were not consulted.

Meshag, son of Hurok, is the eldest son of the Bogū kaghan (ie khan), but has fallen victim to a sorcerous attack in which is soul and life have been bound to that of a steppe wolf. The only reason the attack failed is because Li Mei’s brother, Tai, thwarted the spellcasting – which was itself instigated by Meshag’s brother, who wished to become heir, then kaghan, himself.

So when Li Mei is sent beyond the empire to marry the evil brother, Meshag undertakes to rescue her and return her to her home. His primary motivation is to repay the debt he owes Tai for his life, soul, and freedom; the secondary objective is to thwart his brother’s rise to power. The story that ensues (woven together with the others in the book, but you can also read it is a standalone sequence—true confessions: which I sometimes do, it being a favorite tale!—by following Li-Mei’s pov chapters.) is one of a flight and pursuit, in which the (in many ways) polar opposites of Li-Mei and Meshag are thrown together.

The reason I say “in many ways” is because although Li-Mei and Meshag come from vastly different backgrounds they do have common ground on which to meet. Initially that common ground is Tai’s part in both their lives, but as the story develops they turn out to have personal qualities in common as well: chiefly grit, resolve, and personal integrity, as well as humor. These are important qualities that play a considerable part in their survival and the feelings that develop between them.

I could argue that any moderately attractive, moderately intelligent young woman and man, thrown together in such circumstances, are likely to develop feelings for each other, which makes this an inevitable outcome of the story. I believe, though, that it is those important qualities in common that make Li-Mei and Meshag’s relationship more than just one of circumstance and survival.

To my mind, their tale is a romance, but a delicate, almost ephemeral one. At the very least, their journey has unquestionable romantic elements: i.e. the author has definitely “shipped” them. As a reader, however, you know that their ship is unlikely ever to sail, because the stars of events and their disparate worlds are highly unlikely to align. Li-Mei and Meshag know this, too. And yet there is that indefinable “something” present between them – and detectable to the reader.

I love this kind of storytelling, where the “certain something” is conveyed so powerfully and yet cannot be – and you, as reader, also feel the rightness that it cannot be. In terms of romance, therefore, Li-Mei and Meshag’s story fits into the ‘bittersweet’ quadrant of the compass, without being saccharine or bleak.

I also note that, while Guy Gavriel Kay’s writing is often thought of in conjunction with high or epic fantasy, Li-Mei and Meshag’s tale aligns with elements associated with paranormal fantasy – particularly the spell that binds Meshag to the wolf:

“Meshag, son of Hurok, is strange beyond words, barely human at times, but he is helping her, because of Tai. And his dead eyes do not undermine or refute steadiness and experience. He killed a swan with a single arrow. And he has the wolves.”

I think an important element of their ‘ship’ is that Meshag ends helping Li-Mei for her own sake, too.

All in all, Li-Mei and Meshag’s story is one of my favorites, and their journey and relationship has remained with me, long after other books and their ‘ships’ have long set sail into rose-tinted sunsets.

I therefore consider Under Heaven, but particularly Li-Mei and Meshag’s part in it, a worthy inclusion in my Year of Romance #YOR, with its closer look at some of my favorites Romances in Fantasy Fiction. #RIFF

See you all again next month!

Helen Lowe is a teller of tales and purveyor of story, chiefly by way of novels and poetry; she also blogs and occasionally interviews fellow writers. Her first novel, Thornspell (Knopf), was published to critical praise in 2008. The second,The Heir of Night (The Wall Of Night Series, Book One) won the Gemmell Morningstar Award 2012, and the sequel, The Gathering Of The Lost, was shortlisted for the Gemmell Legend Award in 2013. Daughter Of Blood (Book Three), was published in 2016 and Helen is currently completing the final novel in the series. She posts regularly on her “…on Anything, Really” blog, monthly on the Supernatural Underground, and is also on Twitter: @helenl0we.

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