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REVIEW: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Title: Under Heaven
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Pub Date: April 27, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Fairly literary, slight fantasy and probably appropriate for young adult and up.

Under Heaven is a very good fantasy, heavily-inspired by 9th century (T’ang Dynasty) China. Its plot is solid, interesting, and the pacing moves well. The characters are complex, richly drawn and wrestle through questions of loyalty to family, self, and country. The setting is painstakingly crafted, and easily one of the most compelling elements of the story: for me, half of the fun lies in puzzling out what “real” things have been co-opted into Kay’s analog world.

I loved Kay’s earlier works, especially other history-based fantasies like A Song for Arbonne or The Lions of al-Rassan, until I abandoned the Sarantine Mosaic half-way through the second book (I rarely do this). I found that his Byzantium-inspired series moved very slowly with a plethora of uninteresting characters. Since then, I had avoided his work until picking up Under Heaven in a Boston bookstore. The cover drew my eye, and I thought “I might as well give him another shot.”

I’m very glad that I did.

You will like this book if you enjoy other well-written fantasies set in well-researched historical settings/cultures. Consider looking into books like On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers (pirates + magic, carefully researched), Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe (ancient Greece), or Liam Hearn’s Tales of the Otori series.

If you’re looking for more of a China fix and you enjoyed Under Heaven, then I can strongly recommend Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was.

Under Heaven follows Shen Tai, the second son of a respected general. When we meet Shen Tai, he is nearing the end of an obligatory two years in mourning for his father. He has been living in a remote mountain valley, site of one of his father’s greatest battles, quietly burying the bones of the thousands who died there. For his piety, he receives a gift worthy of an emperor: two-hundred fifty Sardian (Persian) horses. Considering that a handful of these horse is a princely gift, two hundred fifty represent unheard of riches. This unwanted bargaining chip thrusts him into the dynastic politics of Kitai, and makes him the target of assassins, military governors, and civil servants vying for control of the nation’s wealth and future.

The story is told in close third-person, primarily from Shen Tai’s perspective. The writing is crisp and the insight into Shen Tai’s own thought processes gives us a delightful glimpse into his character. Practically from the first page, I found myself caring about Shen Tai and wanting to see how things worked out for him. Excellent job.

However, there was one weakness that made me give this book four stars rather than five. At the end of the book, I felt like there was little character growth on the part of Shen Tai. Generally the Shen Tai at the end of the book was pretty similar to the Shen Tai at the start of the book. There was some growth, don’t get me wrong: just less than I would have hoped for. Other characters change – often significantly – but our hero stays steady. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: I stayed engaged in the book and continued to care deeply about the hero because I still liked him. But some more evolution would have been nice.

I had only one stylistic quibble throughout the book. I admit, it’s a quibble: it might just be me. But Kay chose to write the narrative told from Shen Tai’s perspective in past tense, and side-plots told from women’s perspectives in present tense. I don’t know why. Just to differentiate them? I think the voices were distinct enough without that, and I found the tense shift jarring when first encountered (I thought it was a typo). This might just be my idiosyncrasy, but it did stand out as I was reading the book.

On the whole, I’m very pleased that I picked this book up. Kay’s writing style and technique are great, and the pacing is flawless. I was turning pages well into the night, and recommend this book for any lover of history.

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