Under Heaven

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Cover image

Publisher: Roc
Copyright: May 2010
ISBN: 0-451-46330-7
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 567

Buy at Powell's Books

We first meet Shen Tai burying ghosts in a mountain meadow. The meadow is the site of a vast, deadly battle in the ongoing border fights between Kitai and Tagur, a battle that left tens of thousands of unburied dead. Shen Tai is the second son of a famous and highly respected general of Kitai forces in that battle. When his father died, Shen Tai went west to the shores of Kuala Nor to spend his two years of mourning for his father putting ghosts to rest.

By the time Under Heaven opens, both the Kitai and Tagur garrisons have come to treat Tai like a holy hermit. They bring him food and other supplies, arriving early in the morning so that they can be well on the road before night and the screaming of the ghosts. They've been competing in their support of him, each garrison bringing him slightly better gifts, both attempting to gain honor by being the strongest supporter of a hermit. But everything changes when the Tagur garrison commander brings a letter to Tai from the Tagur court. The wife of the Tagur king, a Kitai princess who was given as part of the treaty that ended the war, has sent him a gift with value almost beyond measure: title to two hundred and fifty near-legendary Sardian horses from the other end of the Silk Road. And before Tai has a chance to absorb that, a friend arrives from the other direction: an old companion from Kitai whose visit is as disruptive of Shen Tai's quiet solitude as the horses.

Under Heaven is Kay's return to his distinctive style of epic historical fiction touched with fantasy after a digression into young-adult fiction with Ysabel. Ysabel is a nice enough book, but this is why I read Kay. It's set in Tang Dynasty China, following much of the structure of familiar (or not so familiar) history, although Kay has followed his normal practice of changing all of the names and some of the details. But it's Tang Dynasty China, with its imperial politics, Silk Road commerce, and great poetry, seen largely through the eyes of a scholarly second son of a philosophical general. Shen Tai is a quiet, thoughtful, and careful protagonist with no great aspirations, a failed soldier, failed monk, and interrupted scholar, who is thrust into the center of the empire by other people's actions. And throughout, he has very personal goals, often quite at odds with the politics around him.

Long-time fans of Kay will, I think, be reminded of the Sarantine Mosaic. Not since that duology has Kay done this good of a job of taking a relatively modest character with his own idiosyncratic goals and pushing him into the center of dramatic politics. But, and this is high praise indeed coming from me, I think Under Heaven is even better. It's more focused, more carefully written, and gem-like in its clear construction of character and background. This is a beautiful, exquisite book in large part because it's book that, like its protagonist, stays within itself. I didn't mind the constant drumbeat of High Drama that filled The Last Light of the Sun, but I can see why some readers found it off-putting. Those readers will find Under Heaven a much more comfortable reading experience. Kay does turn up the dramatic narration a bit too high around the climax, but the rest of the book is much more restrained. The sometimes-painful humanity of the characters mostly pushes the drama of history off the stage.

I don't want to spoil anything about the plot beyond the opening chapters, since the slow unfolding of scope and event is so much of the pleasure of this book. But I will say I was reminded that Kay writes some of the best conversations in fiction. There is a conversation near the center of Under Heaven that rivals even the eavesdropping scene in Tigana for the exceptional pacing, characterization, and repeated broadening and revelation about the story that occurs over the course of a single scene. This is the kind of a book that, after a chapter or two, one relaxes into and completely immerses onself in like a hot bath, confident that one is in the hands of a master storyteller.

I cannot easily judge how respectful Kay is to his source material, not being Chinese and not knowing what warning signs to look for. But at least from my (white American) perspective, Kay does a good job avoiding exoticism and orientalism. Positive signs on that front include the lack of white characters shoehorned as actors into the story, a respect for the culture and history that didn't feel stereotyped to me, and a willingness to let the background be background and not hammer the reader with things that the author found neat in their research. Handling of the background felt as smooth to me as Kay's previous reworking of Byzantium or Spain, and also felt respectful and accurate to his source material as best as I could tell.

One potentially tricky spot that I think Kay handled well is poetry. There is quite a bit of poetry in this book; it's a means for both competition and self-expression for the educated elite and the scholars, of which Shen Tai is one. Tai also picks up a poet as a companion for much of the book, and poetry plays an important role in the conversation I mentioned earlier. This is dangerous territory for a writer: one can put exceptional composers, visual artists, or dancers in a book and get away with a few oblique descriptions, but if you have poets, the reader expects to see the poems, and expects them to be good. I'm not the best judge of poetry, but they worked for me, both in terms of quality and in terms of the resonance with the symbol sets and rhythm of actual Chinese poetry (to the small extent that I've been exposed to it). Kay does have the delightful structural excuse that, since the book is in English, clearly all the poems are given in translation, so any major failings can be written off to the difficulty in translating poetry. For those not as fond of poetry, rest assured that these poems are generally clear in meaning, always short, and very appropriate to the scenes in which they appear.

I loved this book. The two primary protagonists are both likeable and interesting (and Kay did a good job of finding a believable way to have a female protagonist), and the book is beautifully written and characterized. It may be the most restrained and balanced book that Kay has written yet. I do wish that he'd kept his penchant for dramatic narrator statements in check for the whole book rather than releasing it a bit at the end, but it's a minor and forgettable flaw. More important is both the impact and the quantity of moments and passages that had me hanging on every word or left me in tears. Kay uses shifts in viewpoint and insight into the inner thoughts of characters with a deft touch, fleshing out from multiple angles people who I came to care deeply about. My heart broke for them and soared with them, and I didn't want the story to ever end.

If you at all like historical fantasy, read this. It may be the best book Kay has ever written, which means that it's one of the best books written in the genre.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-11-23

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21