Guy Gavriel Kay – Under Heaven
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.
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.
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.