Under Heaven is the long-awaited new novel by master fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay — and let’s get the most important news out of the way: it was 100% worth the wait.
Fans of Guy Gavriel Kay know that his novels often take place in what appear to be fantasy versions of real countries: A Song for Arbonne is set in 13th century France, The Lions of Al-Rassan in Spain during the Moorish occupation, and so on. Likewise, Under Heaven once again gently blends history and fantasy, taking place in Kitai, a country strongly reminiscent of China, during the Tang dynasty.
Here we meet Shen Tai, who is honoring his recently deceased father (a famed general) by burying the dead at the ghost-ridden site of a major battle. One fateful morning during this long, lonely exile, he learns that he has been given a gift that’s literally fit for royalty: 250 Heavenly Horses. This sudden wealth could catapult him to the highest levels of society… or put a huge target on his back.
It’s hard to imagine a better hook to drag readers into this story, and once the plot gets going, it never loses momentum, introducing new characters and revealing details about Shen Tai’s past at a steady pace. The slow unfolding of the plot, involving various family members and former acquaintances of Shen Tai, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of this novel, so I won’t include any further plot summary and leave the rest for you to discover and enjoy. Suffice it to say that you’ll have trouble putting this novel down, once you get started.
Once again, Guy Gavriel Kay’s work straddles the line between historical fiction and fantasy. It’s a testament to his talent that he can bring a historical period, especially one many people may know little about, to life in such vivid, believable fashion. Rest assured, there are definite fantasy elements here, but the novel has firm roots in the actual history, and reworks and remixes many elements from the actual Tang period. Just hit up Wikipedia for “Tang Dynasty,” and you’ll immediately recognize several historical personages and events that the author has included in some form in Under Heaven. But no worries: even if you have no interest in the historical underpinning of the novel, you’ll have no problems at all understanding and enjoying the story.
Another pillar of Guy Gavriel Kay’s works is the strong characterization, and Under Heaven doesn’t disappoint. For me, the most memorable characters, aside from Shen Tai, were Sima Zian, the bon vivant poet, and Wen Jian, the Precious Consort of the Emperor, whose character arc in this novel is simply unforgettable.
And finally, next to the historical base and characterization, the third aspect of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work that can’t be ignored is the prose. Like his previous works, this novel is filled with beautiful imagery and the most delicate dialogue you’ll find in current fantasy. It may not make complete sense to call descriptive prose “courteous,” but that’s the one word that comes to mind: just like the careful speaking style of some of the characters, who can imply so much while saying so little, and who occasionally make an exclamation or pose a question without employing the expected tone or punctuation and instead using the carefully measured weight of every word, Guy Gavriel Kay often uses a subtle, even understated way to describe events, places and people. You could imagine someone narrating this story in a soft, muted tone, eyes lowered, respectfully letting the words speak for themselves while not trying to let emotion impinge on their meaning. It’s a gorgeous balancing act, and a rare pleasure to read.
This is one of those novels that’s so good, you’ll occasionally close the book after finishing a chapter, just to enjoy and savor what you’ve read before moving on. While I admire everything Guy Gavriel Kay has written recently, his newest novel is easily my favorite novel by him since 1995’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. Expect to see Under Heaven on the short list for all the major awards next year, and do yourself a favor: pick up a copy.