Under Heaven: Gorgeous on audio

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

Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest historical fantasy, Under Heaven, is gorgeous. If you’re already a fan of GGK, you know exactly what kind of delight you’re in for. Under Heaven is every bit as wonderful as Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Last Light of the Sun.

Under Heaven takes place in Kitai — an alternate Tang Dynasty (but not so alternate that you won’t recognize the names of many of the characters if you read just a brief history of the Tang Dynasty). The civilization and culture is experiencing a golden age and family honor is one of the highest ideals. Shen Tai, in order to honor his dead father, has spent two solitary years burying the bones — and silencing the ghosts — of thousands of men who died in a battle between Kitai and neighboring Tagur. Just as his mourning period is about to end, three strange things happen almost simultaneously: a friend shows up with urgent news from the capital city Xinan, an assassin is sent to kill Shen Tai, and the princess of Tagur gives Shen Tai 250 Sardian horses — an incomprehensibly valuable gift that instantly catapults him to the highest ranks of Xinan society. Now Shen Tai must journey back to Xinan, he’s got assassins on his tail, he doesn’t know who he can trust, and he has no idea that war is brewing and his return may be the catalyst.

I’ve already said that Under Heaven is just as gorgeous as Kay’s previous historical fantasies: It’s well-researched, carefully constructed, tightly plotted, and beautifully written. The mingling of the real and the magical is delicate — there are no wizards or wands, but just the acknowledgement of the existence of the supernatural and the weird. Most impressively, GGK’s work is always full of poetry, passion, and life. His characters, those who play major roles and minor ones, feel like real people and, whether we like them or not, we come to understand their histories, motivations, frustrations, and desires. We smile when they laugh, our hearts race when they’re afraid, and we cry when they mourn.

Another feature that sets Kay’s historical fantasies apart from others is his ability to completely immerse us in a real culture without telling us that he’s doing so. Some historical writers feel the need to drop names, exposit, and lecture. In contrast, Guy Gavriel Kay brings a historical period to life without making us feel like we’re reading a textbook or that we’re required to admire his research and knowledge. Since we spend most of our time in Mr. Kay’s characters’ heads, I also appreciate that these characters are all fictional (Mr. Kay explains why he does it this way in the introduction and I completely agree with his philosophy).

I read Penguin Audio’s version of Under Heaven, narrated by Simon Vance. For years Mr. Vance has been one of my favorite narrators, and he’s wonderful here, as usual. If you’re an audiobook reader, you’ll definitely want to try this version read by the incomparable Mr. Vance (download here). Regardless, you don’t want to miss Under Heaven — it may be the best fantasy novel of 2010.

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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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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8 comments

  1. I have so got to read his stuff. I couldn’t get into the Fionavar books, but you’ve told me they’re not representative, and all this historical fantasy stuff sounds amazing.

  2. I know it’s blasphemous, but I didn’t much like the first Fionavar book, either. I own, but haven’t read, the second one. For you, Kelly, I’d especially recommend A Song for Arbonne.

  3. Oooh, I’ll start there then. :D

  4. Definitely A Song for Arbonne, then The Lions of Al-Rassan. Some of the best standalone fantasy novels ever written.

  5. I haven’t read The Lions of Al-Rassan yet, so I’ll need to do that. Out of the ones I’ve read so far, I think Under Heaven was best. What do you think, Stefan?

  6. It’s been a while since I’ve reread his earlier books. The Lions of Al-Rassan and A Song for Arbonne definitely affected me the most, emotionally. I kept looking for that same spark in his later books, and didn’t find it until Under Heaven (even though I loved the Sarantine books and The Last Light of the Sun). Kat, you really really need to read Al-Rassan!

  7. I keep thinking I need to read GGK as well. Maybe I’ll pick up A Song for Arbonne too.

  8. Stefan, I wholeheartedly agree with you. The emotional power of his writing is extraordinay. I would add Tigana to the lot.

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