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Review: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

>>Monday, January 3, 2011

Title: Under Heaven
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Pages: 567
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Publication Date: April 29, 2010
Rating: A

This book is part of Calico Reaction's Monthly Book Club (December).

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

Under Heaven...takes place in a world inspired by the glory and power of Tang Dynasty China in the 8th century, a world in which history and the fantastic meld into something both memorable and emotionally compelling.

In the novel, Shen Tai is the son of a general who led the forces of imperial Kitai in the empire's last great war against its western enemies, twenty years before. Forty thousand men, on both sides, were slain by a remote mountain lake. General Shen Gao himself has died recently, having spoken to his son in later years about his sadness in the matter of this terrible battle.

To honour his father's memory, Tai spends two years in official mourning alone at the battle site by the blue waters of Kuala Nor. Each day he digs graves in hard ground to bury the bones of the dead. At night he can hear the ghosts moan and stir, terrifying voices of anger and lament. Sometimes he realizes that a given voice has ceased its crying, and he knows that is one he has laid to rest.

The dead by the lake are equally Kitan and their Taguran foes; there is no way to tell the bones apart, and he buries them all with honour.

It is during a routine supply visit led by a Taguran officer who has reluctantly come to befriend him that Tai learns that others, much more powerful, have taken note of his vigil. The White Jade Princess Cheng-wan, 17th daughter of the Emperor of Kitai, presents him with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. They are being given in royal recognition of his courage and piety, and the honour he has done the dead.

You gave a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.

Tai is in deep waters. He needs to get himself back to court and his own emperor, alive. Riding the first of the Sardian horses, and bringing news of the rest, he starts east towards the glittering, dangerous capital of Kitai, and the Ta-Ming Palace - and gathers his wits for a return from solitude by a mountain lake to his own forever-altered life.

This month's challenge was certainly epic. Epic is story and epic in size; this is one very large tale. It took me a lot longer to read it than I thought.

I've had some previous experience with Kay. My first was when I tried to read the first book in the Fionavar Tapestry, The Summer Tree, and failed miserably twice. I just couldn't get into it. After reading Under Heaven, perhaps another attempt would turn out differently. The other experience involved reading Ysabel and not liking it as much as others have.

Anyways, what I mean to say is that Under Heaven was a much different experience. I was immersed in a story of the Tang Dynasty, built on the foundation of extraordinary characters. This is what held me through the long trek through the retelling (with liberty) of the An Shi Rebellion; I really fell in love with many characters and became attached to their stories. One of these characters is Shen Tai, the one who receives the gift of 250 Sardian horses. Although not the most equipped in society after being away for so long, he really is a clever and direct man whom I really came to support throughout the story. Kay also creates his female characters exquisitely: Spring Rain, the concubine of first minister Wen Zhou and previous lover of Shen Tai. She's foreign, savvy and definitely not the typical submissive concubine one might expect. Another is Wei Song (perhaps my favorite), a Kanlin warrior not afraid to speak her mind and thoroughly capable of taking care of herself in a harsh world for women. Lastly, there's Li-Mei, sister to Tai, who deals with her unfortunate circumstances with grace and dignity.

Another major aspect of the story that I loved was the political intrigue. This comes from my love of historical fiction and I was happy to see it very well done in this historical fantasy. Through Tai we see the maneuverings of the emperor and those close to him and how 250 Sardian horses can change many people's lives. I thought there was a lot of suspense and I found myself often reading on for hours just to find out how it would all turn out.

As you can see, I was really engrossed in this story. I loved diving into it and being immersed in a fictionalized Chinese culture in a faraway time. However, one major problem is that it is very dense, thus requiring a lot of attention and concentration. Kay's prose is pleasant, satisfying and often quite moving, but the story is told from somewhat sporadic points of view. It wasn't enough to make me put down the book, but I wished that the story was more condensed and concise than it was.

I've come to think of this book as a glimpse of another world and time. Sometimes the story goes in different directions. I think ultimately it is an experience rather than a story about a specific person. Read this if you want to be immersed in a different sort of fantasy with large connections to Tang Dynasty and if you have the patience to read the whole thing. There are many instances of greatness in this book that shouldn't be missed. A


  1. Nice review. I've got Kay on my TBR list to read eventually -- but I had seen good things about this book. Glad you enjoyed it. :)

  2. Very nice, fairly balanced review.

    I love Kay's early work (Fionavar, Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, etc.) but lost interest when he declared himself done with 'epic' fantasy. I've only recently gotten back into his work, but I like the sounds of this one.



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