It begins simply Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift:Sardian horsesYou give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperorWisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person Otherwise he would probably be dead already


10 thoughts on “Under Heaven

  1. Khanh, first of her name, mother of bunnies Khanh, first of her name, mother of bunnies says:

    Sometimes, words fail me when I need them most. Oftentimes, it's because a book is so bad that I don't even know where to begin listing all the problems. In this case, in the case of my very favorite books, the right words just escape me because there's just nothing I can say. Because my simple, stupid words are meaningless when it comes to describing the pure, untarnished brilliance of this book. I am simply humbled.

    It's like thanking the one of the great living people on earth, someone one truly admires, like the Dalai Lama. Is there anything one can say that doesn't come off sounding trite? I admire everything you've done. Really? Is there anything one can say that doesn't sound like a vast understatement, that doesn't make a person wince as they hear the clash of such stupid little words in the presence of such greatness? It is cruel how words often fail us at the most crucial moments.

    There are words, then there are words. There is a difference between slapping words together in order to create a coherent sentence versus weaving words together in a composition of unparalleled artistry. A well-woven sentence speaks to the heart, it sings to the spirit. Words can bring forth feelings of outraged anger. Words can sooth a restless mind. Words can be strung together in a simple sentence that makes no relevance in the context of the book, yet is so beautiful in its simplicity. Words can bring that familiar sting of tears to your eyes as you read, and reread, and reread, a passage that is written with such simple poignancy.

    There are books with plots that hold your attention span from the first word to the last, filled with action, intrigue, suspense. This is not one of these books. The words in this book are to be savored, because it is poetry in prose. You will find no pretentious writing here. The prose is sparse, simple, direct, no dictionary required. But that's the power of words, the ability to take a simple vocabulary which a grade schooler can read and assemble it in such a way that the wise can understand. Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of prose.

    In theory, this book shouldn't have appealed to me at all. I am a creature of minimal attention span. My mind, my eye constantly seeks novelty. I multitask every waking moment. Yet this book is loved, and has been beloved by me since I first read it, years ago. This book is not slow in its pace, but it is interspersed with reflections, narratives, observations regarding the deeper meanings underneath.

    It is a high fantasy that feels more like a historical. It is the story of a weary soldier who abates his guilt, his ghosts, both real and imagined, by burying the bones of soldiers left where they fell, on a long-forgotten battleground. In return for this unwarranted act of kindness, he is awarded 250 prized horses.

    You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank--and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.

    The Princess Cheng-wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.
    What follows is Shen Tai's journey, interwoven with others whose fate is destined to weave with his own. In essence, the Princess has awarded Shen Tai with an honor so great that it might send him to his death. Royalty is like that. They never consider the consequences of their grand actions.

    We follow Shen Tai as he travels home. The dead are dead, not forgotten, and always restless. We see the politics between courts in play. We meet a Kailin assassin, honor-bound to protect Shen Tai with her life. We see the roots of a revolution take place. There is death. There is betrayal. There is heartbreak. There is sibling rivalry and loyalty to the blood. There is a deep friendship and understanding between two men who should have been enemies. We see women live their lives behind a gilded cage, seemingly powerless, relying only on their beauty, subterfuge, and wit; for them, few men are to be trusted.
    There are limits to what a woman in her position can know, however intelligent and committed she might be. There are too many constraints on someone confined to the women’s quarters of a compound or a curtained sedan chair, relying for information on infatuated servants.
    There have always been such limits. It is the way of things, and not all men are foolish, though it might seem otherwise at times.
    We witness their fates, their separate lives as they intersect, through the simple act of an unparalleled gift. A gift that might destroy a nation.

    In my life, I have been a disinterested Buddhist at best, and an angry atheist at worst. I've never believed in the concept of a soul. This book makes me feel like there's more to me than just the physical; if I don't have a soul, how can something within me feel so much peace?
    Branching paths. The turning of days and seasons and years. Life offered you love sometimes, sorrow often. If you were very fortunate, true friendship. Sometimes war came.

    You did what you could to shape your own peace, before you crossed over to the night and left the world behind, as all men did, to be forgotten or remembered, as time or love allowed.


  2. Kelly Kelly says:

    (Dear Goodreads friends I may have deceived with my initial status updates on this book, please to accept my profound regrets and the below revised retraction- if you don't mind some spoilers...

    With apologies,
    Kelly...)

    So, you guys saw Clerks, right? Actually, I think it might’ve been Clerks II, but anyway: there’s one part where some characters pose a very important nerd battle: Star Wars trilogy vs. LOTR trilogy. The major points are as per usual, Darth Vader and lightsabers, BOOM EXPLODING PLANET, etc vs…, as the Clerks gentlemen put it: “three movies about walking!” LOTR nerds usually fire back with something about “myths, legends, deeper meaning, invented a whole language… you heathen peasants!” (For a definitive opinion on this important subject, please see Dr. Oxford: http://www.cracked.com/article_15744_... ). Now, you guys, I’ve watched Fellowship of the Ring an unhealthy amount of times, you know I love me some 1000 pages of Victorian nonsense about nothing, and The Music of Repressed Piano is the rhythm of my heart, but right after finishing Under Heaven, I’m definitely more in sympathy with my Star Wars nerds.

    Under Heaven is a trilogy within a very large stand alone epic. First book: Awesome. Second book: NO. Third book: Ultimately fails due to the flaws in set up of the second book, but could have been better. Also, A.S. Byatt should sue. I’ll explain.

    Act I: He had me from his ghostly cries at night. I adored this set up- Kay places us by a lake in northern China- ahem, Kitai-, near the border with the powerful Taguran empire. A huge battle took place there twenty years ago, and as a result the bones of a hundred thousand soldiers lie unburied, their ghosts grieving and haunting the night. Shen Tai, the second son of the man who won the battle here for Kitai, has returned to grieve for his dead father by burying as many men as he can here- from both sides, for the duration of the formal two and a half year mourning period. I’ve come to expect rapture from Kay- I did not get it here, but I did get a wonderfully contemplative, quiet opening that seemed to speak of a more mature, measured writer. His contrast of poetic lyrics with living images was quietly lovely. He did an excellent job depicting his main character as a man on the cusp of life, of choosing a path, and all the problems that go with that- he did a particularly excellent job of evoking that sensation of closing doors, of Sylvia Plath’s dropping figs. I adored the echoes of the dead and real life bouncing off each other as Shen tries to find his “balance” (yes, there is a bit of basic yin-yang philosophy here) in life. He also sets up what turned out to be my favorite parts of the book: Interludes (which happen throughout the book) in which a third-person omniscient voice from the future looks back on the story being told lyrically expounds upon the difference between experienced events and recorded history- the idea that historical “truth” lies somewhere in between prejudice, perspective, imperfect records, and the narrative being told. It’s somewhere between an elegy and an amused critique of the idea of “history,” and it works very well. Plot wise, he sets up a great relationships for Shen Tai: with the Taguran captain, his lost concubine love, and the foreshadowing of his complicated relationship with his brother. There are hints of darkness closing in, and the close of the act delivers a perfect POW to the face that demands change.

    Act II: I just… I just don’t know what Kay was thinking here. I don’t get it. I kind of wanted to turn to the alternative ‘Choose My Own Adventure’. He just turned the wrong way. I don’t know what else to tell you guys. I felt like that horse in Beauty and the Beast when the old dad tells him to turn down the creepy-ass road that’s clearly going to get everyone involved murdered, and his face is all, “Bitch kidding?” He left his perfectly wonderful story for three other ones, two of which were INCREDIBLY BORING. Shen Tai becomes the incarnation of three movies about walking- the Hollywoodized version. Of the 300 pages that it takes for him to get to the capitol, here's an approximation of how he spends his share of pages:

    50 pages: Thinking about how he hasn’t had a woman in two years
    50 pages: Being turned on by tufts of wind that may have been near the various goddess like women that populate the pages of this book
    50 pages: Receiving important information (in a whorehouse)- and having it repeated later
    20 pages: Mildly important plot events
    2 pages: Having repartee he believes is witty with a woman
    1 page: Actually having sex

    The remainder of the pages are taken up by alternate storylines. Kay has always been one of the best among fantasy writers about giving women their due, and here he really does surpass himself. The women are everywhere. I’d say their stories dominate the book, actually. He should get some props for that. Unfortunately, of the four major women, two were stereotypes and one was boring, and the other one got TOTALLY SHAFTED for incredibly lame theme reasons. There were no Dianoras here, no Jehanes, no Catrianas. We spend a good 200 pages with Shen Tai’s sister and it’s quite dull. I mean, ostensibly, she’s a cool Strong Woman and all, but he just doesn’t have any passion about her and it shows. The women he does have passion for are the ones you would expect him to: the ones that are exquisite, beyond beautiful, and sexually confident. The one female character who did emerge as a fully formed person with a layered story… ends up totally not mattering at all! What a waste! And not in a beautifully thematic sort of way.

    There’s just no coherence here- there’s no woven tapestry like there typically is. Usually in those moments, you get some kind of character development to make up for it. Not in this case, as you see above: riding, thinking about women, recapping plot, the end. It feels like he just chose the wrong story to tell to me. I wanted him to stick near the border, stuck between two forts (what a great story that would’ve been!), I wanted his sister to get captured by brigands and become a pirate queen or something, or why not tell us more about the Silk Road that you brought up continuously in the first 100 pages and then totally dropped in favor of events in the east. Why not meet the mysterious princess who offered Shen Tai so great a gift? Oooh, there are tigers down south and jungles to explore in India… so why aren’t we there? He talks a lot about the stories history doesn’t tell, those shunted to the side… and then proceeded to do that in his story- come on! That might've been part of the point, but we as readers should've gotten one of the more interesting choices, no? One of my English teachers used to circle off hand sentences at the bottom of a secondary argument and say, “Why didn’t you write about this instead??” I know how she felt now. Shen Tai was a potentially interesting character that was totally wasted on the rest of this book.

    Act III: We finally get where we’re going. Unfortunately, the people we’re being brought to meet are not at all worth the wait. They're are caricatures of previous Kay characters, who’ve been done better before. I don’t even like Fionavar that much, and I thought the heir to the throne was a poor man’s Diarmuid, the emperor’s consort a pale imitation of the empress from the Sarantine Duology, etc, etc. He just gave me all the hallmarks, but didn’t put any soul into them. He gave me the customary language about being in awe and adoration of these people and didn’t really give me much to adore- everyone was much too distant and wasn’t there for long enough. The big climatic scene that’s supposed to be a tragedy fails because we weren’t set up to care. The romance pissed me off: a perfect example of Kay pausing at a fork in the road and taking the banal road, one that came up out of the blue I might add (a total Alessan-Catriana special), as opposed to the one he’d beautifully set up from the very beginning, involving the only character I really cared about. (This is where the AS Byatt thing comes into play- he seriously has the whole lost letter thing from Possession happen, with the same imagery, making the same point, rather clumsily, I thought.) I think I was supposed to just softly weep my heartbreak, but it just rung up as yet another poor storytelling choice. This happened repeatedly, with all the best stuff from Act I: with the family drama he set up at the beginning (totally wasted), the possibly ambiguous villains (they turn out to be black and white), and Shen Tai’s involvement with the larger events of the empire (just involved enough to make me want to follow that story, not involved enough to actually follow through).

    And then, as if in parody of this whole thing, he committed the worst LOTR movie sin of them all: The perilously long epilogue where it takes twelve tries to say goodbye… mostly to characters who have been tragically oversimplified beyond hope of any connection. I already had my idea for this review in my head and almost couldn’t believe it was happening as I read it.

    It wasn’t a bad book. It just failed to live up to its potential. You know, I just wrote a whole review of Kay’s earliest work, making fun of him for being in constant, throbbing ecstasy all the time. It turns out the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction. In painful irony, this was a novel about balance, too.

    Overall: It’s like my mom said after I took her to see Into the Woods: “Told you nothing good could come of staying after the first act.”



  3. carol. carol. says:

    Delicious, a meaty, engrossing book with prose that brushed the edges of poetry. In some ways, it is three different books that might have benefited from being turned into full novels, but that's part of the joy of Kay's work-- he always has me wishing there was more time to explore relationships, back stories, and so on. It's an unusual setting for the type of fantasy I read, set in ancient China during the Tang Dynasty, a golden age of China's power. He wove the characters together in one of those plot lines where a single decisions coupled with coincidence prove disastrous, with far-reaching and unintended consequences. If you like Kay's style and prose, this is worth reading strictly for the enjoyment of his language.


  4. Paul O& Paul O& says:

    Here the world is all the world may be.

    A powerful blend of historical fiction and fantasy, Kay delivers a great story about loss and honour. This story is about Shen Tai who, after spending two years in mourning over the death of his father burying the bones and being haunted by their ghosts, is sent an unexpected gift of 250 Sardian horses, otherwise known as ‘heavenly horses’. This instantly puts him in a position of power and Tai must decide what to do with this gift.

    Set during a fantasized version of the Tang dynasty in eighth century China, Kay is able to create a majestic atmosphere.

    I really enjoyed the role that poetry plays in the world. Poetry is really important and Tai meets, and then travels with a famous poet and they share poems amongst themselves often. I really enjoyed the romantic elements of this book, and that’s something I don’t think I’ve ever said in a book review before.

    Check out all my book blogs at http://constantreaderpauloneill.blogspot.co.uk/.

    Format

    Book format: Kindle ebook
    Length: 567 pages
    Reading difficulty: Medium
    POV: Mainly follows Tai and his sister Li-Mei but it does jump to other viewpoints
    Person: Third
    Chronology: Linear

    Writing

    Kay’s writing is magnificent! He can carry emotions well and as such, the impactful elements of this story really stand out. The poems featured within were really good, for the most part.

    This book is infinitely quotable; here are some of my favourite bits:

    There was a new hole in the world where sorrow could enter

    a red violence was approaching from the east

    Vengeance could give birth to horrors not to be spoken aloud

    Branching paths. The turning of days and seasons and years. Life offered you love sometimes, sorrow often. If you were very fortunate, true friendship

    Bitter wind blows battle smoke
    Wild geese and cranes fly.
    Later, moon’s disk in the water.
    Plum blossoms mirrored in the river,
    Until they fall.

    It is difficult to feel that your life means anything under this sky

    Red song of war arrows, red sun

    The demons could triumph, take any man’s soul, carry it off as a prize to their own red kingdom

    Characters

    The story follows Tai mostly, who is a very honourable character and very interesting. Kay was able to make me feel is struggle and care about what happens to him throughout.

    To me, this book should’ve focused more on Li-Mei, Tai’s sister, and Meshag. Their ‘relationship’ was tremendously interesting and I wanted to see more of this. I thought it was very unique.

    Notable issues

    A few of the side characters do blend into one another at various points. There wasn’t much unique about a lot of the minor characters which led to me having to stop and check that I had the correct person in my mind.

    Kay does go a bit overboard with commas, but this is more of a style point. It’s also a bit long in the tooth sometimes but it’s a well thought out story.

    Final thought

    If you’re looking for dragons and wild fight scenes, look elsewhere. This story, and Kay’s other works are what I like to term ‘Grown up’ historical fantasy. It’s subtle and it blends historical elements with great characters along with an emotional story.

    If you are looking for a book that makes you “feel something”, I’d highly recommend this, or Tigana, which is one of my favourite books of all time.


  5. K K says:

    How to Write Pretentious Historical Fiction

    1. Start with an exceedingly slow build-up -- the more detail, the better. If your book is lengthier, people will assume it's more literary.

    2. Choose an exotic time period and locale and evoke it wherever possible. Hopefully the fascinating food and clothing details will help your reader forget that there was no indoor plumbing. Then, proceed to superimpose all sorts of anachronistic qualities on your story to appeal to contemporary readers' fantasies and sensibilities -- empowered women, sensitive men, etc.

    2. Make sure your hero/heroine is a Mary Sue:

    a. Men should be strong and macho, feared and/or respected by those around them. These men should also have a sensitive side -- they sense all kinds of subtle things about the people around them, and treat their women surprisingly well considering the mores of the time (which we'll relegate to the back burner along with the lack of indoor plumbing). A little self-doubt on your hero's part can be a good thing, but it should never interfere with his behaving in a confident and forthright manner.

    b. Women should be attractive and feisty, strong-willed but always in an endearing way. Every man the heroine meets secretly lusts after her. The hero will probably rescue her at least once from one of her drooling or bullying admirers.

    3. You can enhance your hero or heroine's Mary Sue-ness by writing in the third person omniscient and giving all the peripheral characters (of which there are many, of course) admiring thoughts about them.

    4. Characters' inner thoughts can also be peppered with historical details you want to share with your readers -- why let all that research go to waste?

    5. Plot? You're worried about plot? Oh, please. With all these other accoutrements, your book can simply proceed along formulaic Harlequin lines. Give your character a quest of some kind, and/or a secret role in some political intrigue. Shroud this in details and complications so readers get distracted from any plot holes. Don't forget the love story and lots of steamy scenes.

    6. Try to manipulate your readers' emotions wherever possible. All children must be precocious and consistently cute; bonus points if they break your reader's heart by dying. Include some wise and saintly characters who can also be killed off. There should be at least one scene where your hero or heroine rescues someone who's being abused or bullied in some way.

    7. Villains should be as evil as possible. They are usually ugly and off-putting, although they may be deceptively attractive. All your characters should hate them, unless they're hitching their wagon to them.

    8. If you need inspiration, there seems to be no shortage of books of this nature to serve as models. And they tend to have really high goodreads ratings!


  6. Choko Choko says:

    Just perfect!


  7. Mayim de Vries Mayim de Vries says:

    “It is not always a good thing to be noticed.”

    Every dirty trick the writers know to break their readers’ hearts has been employed in this book. And then repeated for a good measure.

    I still cannot decide whether Mr Kay is a historian who thought it would be good to become a writer or a writer who’d like to be a historian when he grows up. Either way, he is a master of historical fantasy; those tales with only a dash of supernatural here and there, stories whose magic relies solely on the bardic magnetism of the teller.

    I might have loved “Under Heaven” because it was staggeringly similar to “Sailing to Sarantium” which is one of my favourite books by Mr Kay. The Middle East has been replaced by the Far East, but the general shape of the empire and its intrigues, and heroes is very similar. Perhaps you’ll be more inclined to count it against the novel, but I was really happy (almost right to the very end).

    If “Under Heaven” had the sweet flavour of homecoming, it was firstly because of Mr Kay’s mastery of language: sublime, intimate, at times poetic but always elegant, never veering near the purple prose so many of us detest. If you want to know what is this book like, imagine a meticulously groomed oriental garden with not even one stone out of place; balanced and yet not obvious composition of various elements that remain in aesthetic harmony. Reading “Under Heaven” is like a stroll through this garden.

    “There comes a point when life is not worth enduring if one steps back.”

    The novel owes a lot to its main protagonist, Shen Tai. Tai is courteous, otherwise not typically handsome; rather arresting with deep-set eyes, the most distinctive trait about him. But Tai makes up for his average looks with rich personality which makes him a protagonist that is both easy to bond with and also memorable in the fantasy crowd of young males.

    Tai is an unprepossessing figure and has everything that comes with being a middle brother. He does not have this invisible mantle of superiority so typical for the eldest, and yet he is not the coddled junior. Something in between, something observant and insightful, something non-conformist. There are so many strands in Tai: a scholar, a warrior, a poet, an ascetic and a young, virile man - it is difficult to pin him down and label appropriately. He cannot do it himself, trying and abandoning one career after another only to eventually end up where no other human had the balls to go. And doing this in a rather noncommittal manner. But also, there is a lot of anger in Tai and he will need this rage to push him through what Kay hurls at him from the very first chapter. In short, Tai is given a magnanimous but difficult gift that puts his life at risk. There is also someone who wants him dead for reasons unknown. These two things might or might not be related to each other and as Tai sets off to settle both issues, a wider tale unfolds branching out and encompassing a wider array of characters of which some will be granted their own POVs.

    “The world could bring you poison in a jewelled cup, or surprising gifts. Sometimes you didn’t now which of them it was.”

    I said it before, so I’ll only briefly reiterate here on the importance of artisans in Kay’s novels. “Under Heaven” is not an exception to this rule and the Banished Immortal, one of the greatest poets of the Dynasty will be one of the key (unorthodox) figures here showing that “sometimes poetry gave you new, dangerous ideas” and yet that it is a difficult thing to actually live the poems.

    And then there are the women.

    I don’t know if there is anyone I value more for the way they write women. Kay is a genius.

    I am not sure which one impressed me more: The exotic courtesan Spring Rain or the Precious Consort Wen Jian, a concubine but also in many respects the uncrowned empress doing more ruling than the person who is nominally the head and heart of the state. Wei Song, a Kanlin Warrior (think sexy ninja) but more than just a girl with a blade or Tai’s sister, Li-Mei, another strand in this story, a personification of courage and perseverance.

    It does not mean that I agree with all of their attitudes, behaviours and choices (some choices remain a total mystery to me (view spoiler)[particularly Spring Rain’s out of the blue decision in chapter 36 which makes sense from the grand design point of view but is entirely contradicting everything that had been previously written about her all, and frankly speaking, cost Mr Kay one star in the rating (hide spoiler)]


  8. David Sven David Sven says:

    Guy Gavriel Kay gives us a fantasized historical fiction of Tang China. What does that mean exactly? A little hard to explain. It feels very authentically like 8th century China complete with the Great Wall keeping the Bogu (barbarian) tribes at bay, the Capital Xinan, and the politics and intrigues of the Imperial court. Then throw in an element of the supernatural/preternatural, with restless ghosts and wandering undead.

    After the death of the honoured General Shen Gao, his son, Shen Tai our main protagonist, undergoes his two year mourning period at the battlefield where his father won a great victory. Countless dead from his father's battle as well as battles before lie unburied under the stars, their ghosts wailing night after night. To honour his father's memory, Shen Tai spends his days burying the bones of friend and foe alike, silencing screams one tormented soul at a time.

    Before Shen Tai is due to return home, the enemy side honour his service with a gift of such value that it has the potential to threaten the balance of power at the Imperial court.

    Kay's prose was superb as I expected from reading Tigana which is the only other Kay book I've read. This book is a slow burn with all the dramatic tension driven by political intrigue. I though the plot dragged in the second half and in a story where as much is conveyed by what is not said, and what is not done the climax points were a little too understated. I also wish there was either more focus on the fantasy elements or no fantasy elements at all. It could read just as well as a straight up historical fiction, but at times felt like it didn't know what it wanted to be.

    I liked Tigana better but that's more personal taste. At the end of the day, the characters in this book were well crafted, the setting authentic, and the writing superb. I'm giving this one


    4 stars.

    Tigana review


  9. Bradley Bradley says:

    Whenever I read a modern Kay novel, I always struggle trying to classify them.

    In all normal respects, they read like classic historical novels set in culturally lush times, peppered with rich characterizations, and steeped in really classy, nearly (or fully) poetical language.

    But this ISN'T a novel of the Chinese Tang Dynasty. It may feel like it, read like it, and have a truly heartbreaking setup that seems rather unique to the period, but it ISN'T historical fiction.

    It is fantasy. Plain and simple. Made up era, made up world, (even tho it has a moon quite like ours), and enough references to make it FEEL like its a history we ought to KNOW.

    And that isn't a problem, per se, but it's only fantasy in the worldbuilding. No magic. Just a fully realized world.

    And this is very much a beautiful world. Saying anything more would still do it not enough justice.

    I personally prefer a bit more magic in my fantasies, but that's only MY preference. I really loved the characters and the rambling progression of plot. Who knew that getting a gift of 250 horses for performing an act of charity for the dead could bring one SO MUCH TROUBLE?


  10. Kat Hooper Kat Hooper says:

    ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

    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. Every bit.

    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 acknowledgment 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. Regardless, you don’t want to miss Under Heaven — it may be the best fantasy novel of 2010.