Under Heaven: Beautiful, epic, and vintage GGK

Guy   Gavriel Kay Under Heavenhistorical fantasy Guy Gavriel Kay Under Heaven book reviewUnder Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

After the death of his father, a general of Kitai’s army, second son Shen Tai retreats from the empire’s dazzling capital of Xinan to spend the ritual period of mourning with 40,000 ghosts. In the breathtaking valley of Kuala Nor, near the border of Kitai and Tagur, the empire with which Kitai has established a truce, Tai spends two years alone, burying soldiers of both empires, a task beyond the power of any one man. His simple solitude is broken, however, by disruptions from both West and East: from Tagur, a decree that its court has chosen to reward his effort with the incomprehensibly generous gift of 250 purebred ‘Heavenly Horses”; and from Kitai, the arrival of a message-bearing friend. Both compel Tai to end his solitude and return to Xinan. But as a man now unique in all the empire, marked by his time at Kuala Nor and the value of the coveted horses, Tai will find that all of his education and courage, and the guidance of friends old and new, may not be enough to preserve his life, or the empire itself, as the ambitions and flaws of its citizens collide under heaven.

Under Heaven (Roc/Penguin, hardcover, 567 pages, $26.95 cover price) is the latest stand-alone novel by award-winning Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. For those familiar with Kay’s work, little more need be said. Under Heaven is vintage Guy Gavriel Kay, another elegant, captivating work by a master at the height of his powers. For those unfamiliar with the author’s method, some background: Guy Gavriel Kay begins creating a novel by focusing on a particular time and place. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, it was reconquest-era Spain, and in A Song for Arbonne, the France of the troubadours. Here, it is China during the Tang Dynasty of the 8th century. Guy Gavriel Kay then researches the setting meticulously, distills its flavor and essence, and transfers them into an alternate, often magical world, thereby freeing them from the limitations of history and what we believe to be impossible. The result is sweeping, intoxicating storytelling at its finest.

Although Guy Gavriel Kay’s work is often called ‘historical fantasy’, make no mistake: the presence of magic is rare, but all the more magical because of that rarity. At the same time, Kay’s increasingly spare but lyrical prose, and his nuanced insights into character and situation, excel at revealing that lives, relationships, and stories are themselves abundantly magical. In a Kay novel, and Under Heaven is no exception, a reader will find elements of family, religion, politics, war, sex, death, and poetry, interwoven into a vivid tapestry that will engage both mind and heart. Moreover — and in this way Kay’s work separates itself from much commercial fantasy and historical fiction and earns the distinction of ‘literature’ — the tapestry is never presented as a complete or completely known composition, but rather as one encompassing both the shadows of the past (in Under Heaven, the legacies of Tai’s father and the former prime minister) and the misted veil of the future. It is inaccurate to say that Guy Gavriel Kay’s work offers unequivocally happy endings, but they are, nonetheless, unequivocally satisfying. (The last line of Tigana, for example, is still the most vague, wondrous, and memorable last line of any fantasy novel I’ve read — but it only achieves its full impact if you’ve read the entire book, so take care not to spoil it for yourself.)

I highly recommend Under Heaven for readers familiar with Guy Gavriel Kay’s work or anyone who enjoys historical, fantasy, or literary fiction. It’s simply a beautiful and epic tale. The only readers who may not enjoy it as much are those who prefer action-oriented page-turners, who grow frustrated by extreme subtlety or nuance in dialogue or circumstance, or who demand closure and explanation for every plot thread in a tale. This is a novel to savor outside on a gorgeous day, by lamplight with a glass of wine, or in any other place in which the distance between past and present, between this world and the world of legends, diminishes to the thinness of a page.

If the current field of fantasy literature were imagined as a sprawling chateau, with the largest spaces being the armor-crowded trophy room of medieval fantasy and the strobe-lit, vampire-haunted ballroom of urban fantasy, Guy Gavriel Kay’s works would form a niche — a quiet, starlit courtyard brightened by blossoms and faint music, a enchanted sanctuary which, once found, is never forgotten.

Under Heaven — (2010) Synopsis: 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. Yougave 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 fiftyis an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor. Tai is in deep waters. He needs to get himself back tocourt 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.

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ROB RHODES was graduated from The University of the South and The Tulane University School of Law and currently works as a government attorney. He has published several short stories and is a co-author of the essay “Sword and Sorcery Fiction,” published in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading. In 2008, Rob was named a Finalist in The L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. Rob retired from FanLit in September 2010 after more than 3 years at FanLit. He still reviews books and conducts interviews for us occasionally. You can read his latest news at Rob's blog.

View all posts by Rob Rhodes (retired)

One comment

  1. Anonymous /

    I have been hearing great things of this book. I am going to have to add it to the list to get. Thank you!

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