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Guy Gavriel Kay – Under Heaven

June 29, 2010

63. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (2010)

Length: 574 pages
Genre: Historical Fantasy

Started: 22 May 2010
Finished: 07 June 2010

Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s writing, and despite still having two of his books unread on my TBR pile (saving them for a rainy day, I guess?), I wanted to read his new book ASAP.

Hundreds of horses
can change the course of a life
and of a country.

Summary: Shen Tai is the second son of a major general of the army of Kitai. After his father’s death, Tai’s formal two-year mourning period has been spend at the site of his father’s last great battle. He has been living in solitude in the isolated mountain valley on the borders of the empire, burying the bones of those who died in battle – both Kitan soldiers and the Tagurans, their enemies. As a thank-you, the Taguran empress gives Tai a generous gift – two hundred and fifty “heavenly” horses of the finest Sardian stock. One such horse is enough to inspire jealousy in other men, so Tai is suddenly wealthy beyond his wildest imaginings… and just as suddenly thrust into the world of imperial politics and strategizing far beyond his depth. For the capital city of Xinan is a dangerous place for those who don’t know how to play the game, and play it well… and Tai has been isolated from city life for almost two years.

Review: I’d seen a lot of other reviews proclaiming Under Heaven to be Kay’s best book yet, and I was hoping to find that to be the case, but sadly, it just wasn’t. At least, it wasn’t his best in terms of how much I enjoyed it and how involved in the story I became. On technical terms, I can easily believe it’s his best; Kay’s writing and use of imagery are as flawless and breathtakingly beautiful as ever, and his world and its characters feel rich and complex. The theme, of the small chances and coincidences that shape the course of our lives and of history itself, is a familiar one in Kay’s work, although his previous books have dealt with it a little more subtly.

Kay also did a good job with the storytelling, keeping me interested in the politics as well as the people – mostly by making the politics about the people. Still, I never got as involved with the book as I would have liked; Kay’s usually pretty good about wringing tears from my cold dead heart (I was a wreck for the last 50 pages of The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example), but Under Heaven just didn’t elicit any strong reaction from me. However, this may have been more my fault than the book’s – I read it during a very stressful and distractable few weeks – and others’ reactions may vary. Also, a book doesn’t need to be among Guy Gavriel Kay’s best to be worth the reading; even an average book by Kay is better than 90% of the rest of books out there, and if you’re looking for historical fantasy, he’s clearly at the top of his game. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: If you’re not normally a fantasy fan, don’t let the genre label scare you away; apart from some ghosts briefly interacting with the physical world, and a bit of shamanic magic in a sub-plot, this book is otherwise straight-up historical fiction based in a fictionalized country modeled on Tang-Dynasty China. If you are a fantasy fan, and like rich, serious, mature novels, you should definitely be reading Kay, and while Under Heaven wasn’t my favorite of his books, it would be a fine place to start.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Question for folks who have read it: The scene where Spring Rain reveals her real name was played as a big punch, ending the chapter. Was it a name that I was supposed to recognize (from another of Kay’s books?), or was the big reveal just of her country of origin?

Other Reviews: Booklust, Fantasy Book Critic, Libri Touches, Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, Sci-Fi Fan Letter, Speculative Book Review, The Wertzone
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.

Cover Thoughts:

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 111: “The paulownia would have fallen by now, Tai thought.” – a Japanese tree, Paulownia tomentosa, of the bignonia family, having showy clusters of pale-violet or blue flowers blossoming in early spring.
  • p. 332: “When skilful use of masicot, onycha, indigo sticks for beauty marks, sweet basil, plucked eyebrows and painted ones, powder and perfume and exquisitely adorned hair are no longer enough to sustain necessary beauty.” – monoxide of lead, PbO, in the form of a yellow powder, used as a pigment and drier; the claw or nail of the strombus or wing-shell, a univalve common in the Red Sea, an ingredient in the sacred incense.
17 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2010 9:15 am

    I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but you’ve piqued my interest. My son reads fantasy – I’m going to ask him about this one – maybe he has it.

    • July 6, 2010 9:38 am

      bermudaonion – I know fantasy is not normally your thing, but I don’t think you’ll regret making an exception for Guy Gavriel Kay. His books are so well-written and mature, and his prose is so lyrical and lovely, and for the most part they’re barely fantasy at all.

  2. June 29, 2010 10:12 am

    I really like the cover of this book! I am absolutely putting this on my wishlist. The premise sounds awesome!

    • July 6, 2010 9:40 am

      April – That’s another thing I really like about Guy Gavriel Kay – he writes fantasy novels with unique plots and premises… no pigboys, here!

  3. June 29, 2010 11:30 am

    This was actually just recommended on NPR Books, although they never mentioned the author’s name! It sounded quite interesting. I think I’ll add this to my list now.

    • July 6, 2010 9:42 am

      Omni – Maybe the NPR folks were just unsure how to pronounce it? (I’m 99.8% sure that it’s pronounced the French way, as he is Canadian, but that doesn’t stop my brain from prounouncing it like regular ol’ guy.)

  4. June 29, 2010 4:02 pm

    I’ve only read one of Kay’s books (Ysabel) and I really enjoyed it. But I think I should really read Lions, which is sitting in the midst of my TBR pile, and which I have only heard fantastic things about, first!

    • July 6, 2010 9:43 am

      Bart – An excellent choice! Lions is tied with Tigana for my favorite Kay novel, I think.

  5. June 29, 2010 5:56 pm

    Ha, I hate it when something gets revealed and I have no idea what the import of the revelation is. But I have read no Kay and can’t help on this one.

    • July 6, 2010 9:44 am

      Jenny – Argh, I know, so frustrating! Just familiar enough to feel like I should know it, but not familiar enough for it to actually ring any bells.

  6. July 1, 2010 4:38 am

    Now I’m curious about this revelation. I’ll keep an eye out for it once I get my hands on the book.

    • July 6, 2010 9:46 am

      Memory – You’d be the one to know, for sure. I’m thinking that it might be the same name as a minor character from The Sarantine Mosaic, but a) it’s been a relatively long time since I’ve read it; b) I’ve got a crappy memory, particularly for names; and c) I don’t have my copy on hand to thumb through and check.

  7. angela permalink
    October 14, 2010 6:33 pm

    Back to pronouncing his name–I just watched an interview with him ( and it’s Guy as in ordinary guy.

  8. Anthea permalink
    November 11, 2010 2:07 pm

    I’ve just come across your blog and love your enthusiasm for one of my very favourite authors. I have read them all and Tigana was my first. I was caring for my poor old father at the time and just had to tell him there was no lunch, no tea, no supper as I couldn’t put it down. Luckily at the time he was able to get himself something and pass me bits of cheese or biscuit…

    Regarding Spring Rain I failed to pick up an earlier reference but undoubtedly someone in the forums on will be able to help.


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