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Under Heaven [Hardcover]

Guy Gavriel Kay
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 30 2010

Inspired by the glory of Tang Dynasty China in the eighth century, Guy Gavriel Kay melds history and the fantastic into something both powerful and emotionally compelling. Under Heaven is a novel on the grandest narrative scale, encompassing the intimate details of individual lives in an unforgettable time and place.

Shen Tai is the son of a general who led the forces of imperial Kitai in that empire's last war against their western enemies from Tagur, twenty years before. Forty thousand men on both sides were slain beside a remote mountain lake. General Shen Gao himself has died recently. To honour his father's memory, Tai has spent two years of official mourning alone at the battle site among the ghosts of the dead, laying to rest their unburied bones.

One spring morning, he learns that others have taken note of his vigil. The White Jade Princess in Tagur is pleased to present him with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses, given, she writes, in recognition of his courage, and honour done to the dead.

You gave a man one of the famed Sardians to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.

Tai starts east towards the glittering, dangerous imperial capital and gathers his wits for a return from solitude by a mountain lake to his own forever-altered life.

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Quill & Quire

In a land far away and a time long ago, the devious Wen Jian sits inside a silk-curtained sedan chair being carried through the streets of Xinan. Jian is known as Precious Consort, the favoured companion of Emperor Taizu. She is stunningly beautiful and cunningly dangerous.

“Will you take a lychee?” Jian asks the virtuous and virile Shen Tai. “I can peel it for you Master Shen Tai. We could even share it. Do you know the most enjoyable way to share lychee fruit?”

Tai realizes that dallying with the flirtatious Jian could result in his death at the hands of the jealous emperor. But death could also come should he annoy Precious Consort and rebuff her overt sexual advances. What is a young man to do?

This is merely one of the many dilemmas Shen Tai faces in Guy Gavriel Kay’s new historical fantasy novel. The setting evokes the Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China, but Kay calls his imagined land Kitai. It is a place of seductive princesses, cruel villains, brave warriors, unending duplicity, and difficult choices.

Kay is a philosopher at heart with far more to offer than comic book representations of clanging swords and perfumed seductresses. His novels, including Ysabel, Sailing to Sarantium, and those that comprise the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, are filled with the great questions that have bedevilled mankind throughout the ages and continue to gnaw at our psyches. Under Heaven is no exception. Readers accompany Tai on a journey that repeatedly tests his loyalty to family, friends, traditions, country, and honour. Tai makes wise choices, but Kay constantly challenges his readers to ask themselves what they would do in similar circumstances.

When the story opens, Tai has just spent two years honouring the memory of his late father, a celebrated general, by journeying to the scene of an epic battle at a remote mountain lake and burying the bones of thousands of fallen soldiers from the armies of both Kitai and its enemy neighbour, Tagur. Tai’s selfless attempt to calm the restless spirits of the dead has moved the White Jade Princess of Tagur to promise him a gift “to overwhelm an emperor”: 250 prized horses. The gift also turns Tai into a target for those who would kill him to secure the booty. The novel traces Tai’s attempts to fend off his enemies as he travels to collect the animals.

What Kay has created here is a mythic tale in the tradition of Odysseus. Tai must endure heartbreak, sorcery, and civil war to obtain the horses and bring honour to his country. Along the way, he must also save his sister, who is being forced to marry a distant barbarian leader.

Although Under Heaven is primarily the story of a man, it is noteworthy for its many strong female characters. The book could easily have become just another male-centric tale of looting, raping, and pillaging, but Kay’s women refuse to let the men and their actions dominate. There is Wei Song, an unforgettable ninja-like female bodyguard hired to protect Tai. There is Spring Rain, the canny courtesan Tai loves. There is Precious Consort and Tai’s courageous sister, Shen Li-Mei.

Advance publicity material includes a letter from the author explaining why he does not use real historical characters or places in the novel: “I do not know what the real prime minister of Tang Dynasty China thought about at night in the middle of the eighth century,” Kay writes. “I have a pretty good idea of what my prime minister of Ninth Dynasty Kitai is all about and I am happy establishing a space between the invented character and the real man.”

On the surface, that seems like a more honest approach than inventing events and emotions holus-bolus for historical figures such as Genghis Khan, Cleopatra, or Napoleon. Kay’s argument, however, can be turned on its head. He has thoroughly researched ancient China and used that knowledge to create the imaginary world of Kitai. Some of that world includes the customs and attitudes of a real historical period. Others are pure inventions. But which ones? Experts of the era will know. Most of us won’t. Under Heaven does, however, answer a question that echoes one dear to amorous, canoe-loving Canadians: Is it possible to make love in a moving sedan chair? “It can be done,” says Precious Consort.


“This is a hell of a novel. Guy Gavriel Kay chooses a time and place in history, then makes it his own. The names change, and fictional characters join real ones, but the historical background is real and thoroughly researched... this is thrilling historical fiction with a mere shimmer of the otherworldly. There’s nothing remotely ethereal about it. We careen along the Silk Road to Wall watchtowers, warrior monasteries, imperial capitals, Mongolian steppes, elite courtesan dwellings and the private sedan chair of the most powerful woman in the world. It’s riveting and tremendous fun, but it would be wrong to call it a romp – it’s moving and profound, and in the end it’s about trying to find some kind of life in this world. It’s also appealingly complex and a fascinating portrayal of court intrigue when the wrong phrasing of a compliment could mean death. You won’t read many books more enjoyable than this one; the fact that you’ll suddenly find yourself an expert on mid-Tang history is a considerable bonus.” - That's Shanghai Review

"A recurring problem in fantasy and science fiction is the absence of strong and plausible female characters. This is one of Kay's great strengths. His courtesans and warrior maidens are fully realized and believable, and not merely the stereotypical place holders they too often are in the hands of less skilled authors...Under Heaven is an engrossing read, filled with well-drawn characters who live in a richly detailed world." - Winnipeg Free Press

"Simply put, Under Heaven is one of the most exhilarating novels I’ve read. a novel so beautiful, so carefully imagined, so elegantly constructed as to dwarf any efforts to explicate, expound, or analyze — a book that has given me a tremendous amount, but of a nature that I find very hard to explain. But that’s a feeble excuse, for my difficulties are nothing compared to the challenge Guy Gavriel Kay sets himself again and again; if we cease to strive after the seemingly impossible, books of this ambition and grandeur would no longer be written." - Walrus Magazine

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most helpful customer reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A return to form. April 27 2010
It feels wrong on many levels to review a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, as he is a writer of a such skill, talent and dedication. Really, who am I to evaluate his work? But as a reader it's good to know what you will enjoy vs. what you will not.

Simply put, if you have ever enjoyed a Guy Gavriel Kay novel you will not only enjoy this one, you will be glad that he wrote it. Guy exploded onto the fantasy novel scene with the Fionavar Tapestry series, and followed it up with the masterfull "Tiganna". It would be hard for any author to reach those heights reliably and repeatedly. But he managed it again with "The Lions of Al Rassan" and perhaps somewhat less successfully with "A Song for Arbonne". But as a reader I felt dissappointed with "Last Light of the Sun" and "Ysabel". While they retained the poetry expected of GGK they lacked the immediacy of his earlier work. They were poetic as expected, but the pacing seemed off, the stories somehow less gripping. Reading them was like watching a movie that was beautifully shot but where nothing of real substance takes place.

But with "Under Heaven" Guy is able to present us with a story that is both poetic AND immediate. It's complex but accessible, substantial. Truly a pleasure to read. Enjoy.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Could be Kay's best work to date July 31 2010
By Patrick St-Denis TOP 1000 REVIEWER
It doesn't habitually take this long for me to write a review, but I needed time to let Under Heaven sink in properly before doing so. I needed time to gather my thoughts to come up with something that would fully encompass how I felt when I reached the last page of Guy Gavriel Kay's latest. And yet, though I've given this much thought, I'm woefully aware that this pathetic review can never do justice to just how grandiose Under Heaven truly is. Simply put, this is one of the very best novels I have ever read.

Indeed, Under Heaven showcases a Guy Gavriel Kay at the top of his game. No stranger to quality books and memorable reads that remain with you long after you've reached their ending, the author has set the bar rather high throughout his career. To be honest, I doubted that Kay could ever produce a work that would surpass Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan. Of course, I should have known better than to think that Kay had already reached his peak. And with Under Heaven, Kay came up with his best work thus far.

Here's the blurb:

UNDER HEAVEN will be published in April 2010, and takes place in a world inspired by the glory and power of Tang Dynasty China in the 8th century, a world in which history and the fantastic meld into something both memorable and emotionally compelling. In the novel, 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.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Collection Feb. 7 2013
Format:Mass Market Paperback|Verified Purchase
I should have bought this book new as I have most of the books by this author on my shelf.
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This is my unpretencious opinion, as an avid fantasy, fiction and occasionally historal book reader, in the hope that it will help readers decide or not to give this book a try. I personnally almost always read reviews before buying a product or in this case, a book.

While the story was intriguing, complex and hinted at mysteries and mystical twists, their themes were not resolved ...leaving the story with many unanswered questions and unresolved plots. I'd even dare to wonder why some of the details were even mentioned if they added no real substance to the story. This could be answered by the assupmtion that the story might have been initially made to involve these themes more, but were in the end left out due to lack of space and/or time ...And that's exactly how the end of the story feels like ..like it's been rushed ...That the author didn't have time to finish it ...that he was rushed by his publisher to complete the book at a certain time and/or wasn't allowed to exceed a certain number of pages. It's unfortunate, because it had a lot of potential and I really enjoyed the journey, expecting the themes that were introduced to be addressed but that didn't happen ..it fell flat, and didn't procure satisfaction at the end of it.

That is why I give it 3 stars.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kay at his best April 6 2010
Having just finished Under Heaven, I can say that it easily rivals Kay's best works, and is in fact my new favourite book. After the dividing Ysabel, Kay returns to the historical fantasy he is best known for with awesome success. All the reasons I've loved Kay's other books, the superb characterization and flawless storytelling.. The royal courts are so convoluted, very reminiscant of his Fionavar Tapestry series. The chinese-influenced setting is perfect for Kay's style.

Easily 5/5 stars. Possibly his best novel, which is amazing considering the awesomeness of Tigana. An absolute must-read!
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Kay triumph March 4 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Under Heaven is another delight for Kay fans. Once again he has created a delicately detailed world not quite in a known time and place. Following Shen Tai's journey, physical and spiritual, as he is caught up in a time of upheaval and thrown into the highest company by an unexpected gift is a wonderful glimpse into that world that is, yet is not, the Tang empire. The characters all have depth and their lives slowly resolve into a complete picture as the story rounds out to the end.
I'll give it all a few days to settle into my brain and then begin to read it again to savour the details anew.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Kaye never disappoints
I have read all of Guy Gavriel Kaye's books and this is one of the best. The character development is amazing and I am a richer person for having read this book. Read more
Published 15 months ago by chris lamontagne
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent
Great story that offers so much more than the best selling page-turners. If you haven't read Kay's work, do so.
Published on Dec 21 2011 by RedAllAbout
5.0 out of 5 stars Wow!
Guy Gavriel Kay is an excellent writer. He blends fantasy and reality very well. The characters in "Under Heaven" are believable and real. Read more
Published on Feb. 21 2011 by Agnesv
5.0 out of 5 stars Vivid imagery and poetic writing
Pros: lyrical writing, interesting characters, detailed history/world, political intrigue

Cons: ending is a bit long

Under Heaven tells the story of Shen Tai,... Read more
Published on Feb. 15 2011 by Jessica Strider
5.0 out of 5 stars `You could say that there was never a clear beginning to anything in...
'.. unless it was the moment you drew your first breath in the world.'

This novel is set in the fictional world of Kitai, which is based on China's Tang dynasty (618-907... Read more
Published on Oct. 8 2010 by Jennifer Cameron-Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful.
I've been a long-time Kay fan, and although I enjoyed his most recent work I didn't feel it rose to the same level as some of his earlier novels ('Lions', the Sarantine Mosaic). Read more
Published on May 15 2010 by A. Mckenzie
5.0 out of 5 stars Another Masterpiece
GGK is simply one of the greatest living novelists. While his works are often described as fantasy (and some are), he is more a meticulous historian, poet and brilliant... Read more
Published on May 13 2010 by Gerald Manning
4.0 out of 5 stars A Poetic Vision of the Past
Another great book from Toronto-based author, Guy Gavriel Kay. This work delves into a treacherous political milieu based off medieval Japan. Read more
Published on May 7 2010 by H. Marshall
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome
I'm new to this author, just read Tigana a couple weeks ago and really enjoyed it. I saw this was coming out and had a couple great reviews up so I took a chance and grabbed it. Read more
Published on April 9 2010 by Dustin G
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