Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
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.
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.
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.
I’m really looking forward to reading this book! I loved his other stand-alone novels!
I have been hearing great things of this book. I am going to have to add it to the list to get. Thank you!
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.
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.
Oooh, I’ll start there then. :D
Definitely A Song for Arbonne, then The Lions of Al-Rassan. Some of the best standalone fantasy novels ever written.
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?
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!
I keep thinking I need to read GGK as well. Maybe I’ll pick up A Song for Arbonne too.
Stefan, I wholeheartedly agree with you. The emotional power of his writing is extraordinay. I would add Tigana to the lot.