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.
To honour his father's memory, Tai spends two years in official mourning alone at the battle site by the blue waters of Kuala Nor. Each day he digs graves in hard ground to bury the bones of the dead. At night he can hear the ghosts moan and stir, terrifying voices of anger and lament. Sometimes he realizes that a given voice has ceased its crying, and he knows that is one he has laid to rest.
The dead by the lake are equally Kitan and their Taguran foes; there is no way to tell the bones apart, and he buries them all with honour.
It is during a routine supply visit led by a Taguran officer who has reluctantly come to befriend him that Tai learns that others, much more powerful, have taken note of his vigil. The White Jade Princess Cheng-wan, 17th daughter of the Emperor of Kitai, presents him with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. They are being given in royal recognition of his courage and piety, and the honour he has done the dead. You gave a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly.
You gave 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 emperor. Tai is in deep waters. He needs to get himself back to court and his own emperor, alive. Riding the first of the Sardian horses, and bringing news of the rest, he starts east towards the glittering, dangerous capital of Kitai, and the Ta-Ming Palace - and gathers his wits for a return from solitude by a mountain lake to his own forever-altered life.
Under Heaven is another one of Kay's history-based fantasy yarns. The worldbuilding was inspired by the Tang Dynasty of 8th centure China. Richly detailed, the book enthralls you from the very beginning. Not since the Sarantine Mosaic has Guy Gavriel Kay come up with such an evocative narrative and arresting imagery. Not that The Last Light of the Sun and Ysabel were lacking in that regard, mind you. But Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors swept you off your feet and immersed you into the Byzantine multilayered intrigues from the start. Under Heaven, if you can believe this, is even more powerful. History buffs might disagree, yet I feel that Kay captured the moods and nuances of his chosen setting to perfection. And this richness of details make for an even more impressive reading experience.
Still, beyond the vividly depicted environment, it's the superb characterization that makes Under Heaven impossible to put down. Guy Gavriel Kay has always possessed a deft human touch and his past novels are filled with memorable characters. In this one, the author has outdone himself. As the main protagonist, Shen Tai takes center stage and is a well-realized three-dimensional character. But his tale would never be as touching without the presence of men and women like the Kanlin Warrior Wei Song, the poet Sima Zian, the courtesan Spring Rain, or the Taguran officer Bytsan sri Nespo. Although the fate of the entire empire of Kitai could be on the brink of doom, at its heart Under Heaven remains a character-driven work revolving around the lives of the members of the Shen family; Shen Tai, his brother Shen Liu, now principal advisor to the first minister, and their sister Shen Li-Mei.
Absorbing, Under Heaven is the sort of book you wish would never end. It does start a bit slow, yet as you read along you realize that Kay was just laying the groundwork for what is to come. I felt at times that there was more than enough material to warrant at least a duology. However, looking back, I feel that drawing out the story, though it would have fleshed out certain events and characters, would indubitably have robbed readers of such a moving ending. The momentum would never have been the same had the book been split into two installments. In retrospect, I can't find a single thing I didn't like about this one. . .
Although it's still early in the year, I'll go out on a limb and predict that Under Heaven will be the speculative fiction novel of 2010. For the life of me I can't imagine having the privilege to read any work matching, let alone surpassing, the magic of this book. Novels don't come much better than this.
Award-winning author Guy Gavriel Kay has been one of my favorite writers for years. Hence, it came as no surprise that Under Heaven turned out to be a gorgeous and unforgettable work. I expected no less from Kay. What I didn't expect was the feeling of awe that left me speechless when I reached the end. . .