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Author Guy Gavriel Kay. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Author Guy Gavriel Kay. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

The wizard on top of the hill Add to ...

Toronto's Casa Loma sits proudly on the hill, its Disneyland spires dreaming of a romantic past that never existed here. Tucked anonymously into the neighbourhood nearby, the local wizard follows suit, brewing rich stocks of eclectic historical lore into fantastic potions that dreamers around the world pay handsomely to buy.

The clamouring quire of professional writers that clusters in the shabby student neighbourhood below the hill presumes to look down on the castle, regarding it as an ersatz tourist trap, and it maintains an analogous attitude toward fantasy fiction. But none can deny that pseudo-historical wizardry has been good to Toronto author Guy Gavriel Kay, who lives right on top of the hill in a big old house shaded by ancient oaks.

To cast a successful love spell, he says, one must circle such trees "widdershins" (counterclockwise to medieval Saxons) at midnight. The very same direction, one soon learns while chatting in the wizard's wood-panelled and book-lined lair, in which charioteers once raced around the great hippodrome of Byzantium. Which city, despite its great size and many diversions, was nothing compared with "colossally sophisticated" Chang'an, capital of China around the same time.

When a literary figure wants to like a fantasy book, he'll call it magic realism.

One can visit all such places in the company of Kay, who has devoted most of his adult life to creating richly detailed, fantasy "analogues" of them in a series of thick, engrossing novels. In Under Heaven, his latest offering, Tang Dynasty Chang'an becomes Xinan, capital of mighty Kitai. The action begins on a desolate battlefield bordering the dangerous Taguran (Tibetan) Empire, and sweeps toward the capital amid a swirl of heavenly horses, deadly ninjas, ruthless warlords, cunning mandarins and green-eyed, yellow-haired concubines.

As an erudite bonus, the novel's Odysseus-like hero, Shen Tai, befriends on his arduous journey home none other than the Banished Immortal, a fantasy analogue of Li Bai (or Li Po), one of the most celebrated poets of the Chinese language. Often drunk, tip-toeing gingerly around the pools of blood that mark the epic journey home, the Banished Immortal enlivens Under Heaven with poignant verses adapted by Kay from the original poems.

"Look at this," Kay says, reaching over to a shelf groaning with the high-quality secondary sources he used to construct his vision of Tang China, removing Li Po and Tu Fu, a paperback dog-eared at a page commenting on a Li Po poem about the unburied bones littering a desolate battlefield on the Tibetan borderlands. The commentary notes the efforts of a solitary modern figure who is placating the ghosts of the fallen soldiers by burying their still-visible remains.

"That started me on my book," Kay says. "The idea that, 1,400 years later, these bones are unburied, and a 20th-century businessman felt a pious and psychological impulse to do what he could - 1,400 years later! - to lay to rest those ghosts. That started me thinking about a way I could start my novel. That's how it does start."

Tai is dutifully and laboriously attempting to bury the bleached remains of 100,000 dead soldiers by the barren shores of far-flung Kuala Nor as a scholar friend makes his way west with urgent news, accompanied by a sinister female guard from the martial sect known as the Kanlin Warriors. Then the magic begins.

But not too much of it: Since making his name with a Tolkienesque fantasy trilogy in the mid-eighties, Kay has steadily cut back on the supernatural element in his work, relying instead on detailed research into real lives and times to colour his quasi-alternative universes. The ghosts and shamans of Under Heaven behave exactly the way contemporary Chinese/Kitans would expect them to, Kay points out, which makes their existence "more digestible" for modern readers and helps to banish their smugness about powerful ancient beliefs.

"I make real what they believed to be real," he says. "It's a strength of the fantastic."

Kay's shift away from fantasy began 20 years ago with the publication of Tigana, a novel set in an alternative medieval Italy, taking him gradually from an outside position in an overpopulated genre into the mainstream of the current vogue for historical fiction. "It's just a pendulum," he says, acknowledging the event but playing down its significance. He has earned the right to consider himself above and beyond genres.

"When a literary figure wants to like a fantasy book he'll call it magic realism," Kay says, adding that such labelling is "a wrong game." Consider Joseph Boyden, author of the much-lauded literary novel Three Day Road: "He had a man driven to leap to his death from a bell tower because a native shamanistic magic user, a woman he betrayed sexually, was casting a spell 100 miles away. No one commented."

The wizard is also beyond grudges, pushing aside the question as to whether he deserves some of the awards the literary people below the hill keep bestowing upon one another, often in lieu of sales. "I'm asked that a lot and I have to tell you it is a trappy question," he replies. "I want other people to say that. That's not anything you can ever say yourself."

So be it. While it may be invisible to the literary salons, the magic remains strong enough above the hill and amid the oaks to maintain Kay and his family in considerable comfort. A consummate storyteller, amply rewarded for his skill. What could be more fantastic?

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