Under Heaven

Under Heaven

Book - 2010
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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.

Publisher: Toronto : Viking Canada, 2010.
ISBN: 9780670068098
Branch Call Number: KAY
Characteristics: 573 p. : map.


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SCL_Justin Jul 25, 2017

Under Heaven is a fantasy novel set in a world almost but not exactly like Tang Dynasty China. The difference is basically just enough to let Kay stray from history and include ghosts and someone who is something else. Also women have stronger roles than you’d usually see in a story actually from the first millennium.

When the book begins Shen Tai has spent the last two years burying bones from a decades-old massacre. He is given a gift in recognition for his service, a gift that means he must go to the capital. Someone is also trying to assassinate him, even before the extremely valuable gift is made known. The story follows Shen Tai and his bodyguard (and eventually a poet he befriends, who is one of the Banished Immortals) as they go to the capital to see the emperor and confront whoever is trying to kill him.

Shen Tai’s younger sister is a secondary character who has been traded to the barbarians beyond the Long Wall by her other brother (who’s at court in the capital). Her story is interesting and provides motivation for Shen Tai, but even though it’s the more fantastical part of the book, it feels a bit perfunctory.

I really enjoyed the book, especially since it was pretty self-contained (though there is a sequel). As the end nears we’re learning more and more about what happened in history because of these events and the sense that we’re just dipping a ladle into a river of events that make up these lives is emphasized. It feels right in the way a historical epic should. Traditional, I suppose. Romantic. Very recommended for fantasy/historical fans.

Oct 08, 2016

My goodness - this man can write. A complex and enveloping story line. It reads like really good quality historical fiction.

Aug 05, 2015

This might be my favorite novel by Kay; it's certainly the one I've read the most times.

As with all of Kay's later works, the prose style is a pleasure, the characters have depth and humanity, and the plot is fascinating.

WVMLStaffPicks Sep 09, 2014

A gifted storyteller, Toronto novelist Guy Gavriel Kay writes a thrilling adventure set in 8th century China about the 9th Dynasty of Kitai (similar to the Tang Dynasty). Blending history and fantasy, Kay’s story is a complex and intricate tale of love, power, personal integrity, political and court intrigue, military strategy, and great tragedy centered on a young soldier, Shen Tai. Under Heaven is virtually everything a reader could want in a book.

Apr 18, 2014

This book is a good read. The author captures your attention and holds it until the satisfying end.

samdog123 Jun 27, 2012

I read this book for my book club. Since it weighs in at over 700 pages, I downloaded the library's eBook copy and read it on my Kobo. The book has a good glossary of the characters that I wouldl have liked to refer to as I was reading the book, but that's not as easy to do with an eReader. Good characters, particularly the main one, Shen Tai. Gifted with 250 special horses, he becomes embroiled in the political machinations of the court. Has all the makings of a good book; great plot, characters, adventure, suspense and some fantasy too. Really enjoyed it. Not an easy book to read, but I'm certainly glad I did.

Dec 08, 2011

One of those I enjoyed immensely. Everyone has one and this is one of mine. I will reread this one again.
All of his books are really quite terrific. The Lions of Al-Rassan is equally entertaining.

Oct 02, 2011

Under Heaven is a fantasy novel but the fantastical is under-stated. There are ghost and shape-shifters but they take a back-seat to the period drama that unfolds in ancient china. Most of the sword and sorcery takes place off-stage. On stage is palace intrigue. If you like a novel to plod along then the story is likable. I expected more action.

Sep 29, 2011

Read as part of a sci-fi club. Yes, it's historical fiction, but we wanted a change. Really enjoyed this, it blended enough detail about China in the eighth century with the lives of several characters, of various casts and motivations. I liked the occasional slip into documentary mode, saying how historians in later centuries would point back to so and so's choice of action as a catalyst for the death (or survival) of millions. The hero, Shen Tai, is gifted with 250 war horses - an unimaginable wealth that makes him the catalyst for major changes in the empire. And in his own life, which intertwines with a warrior female bodyguard, his sister, the emporer's concubine, and a part wolf barbarian from the north.

Lorna Sep 22, 2011

Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian writer who writes “historical fantasy.” Early in his career he was requested by the Tolkien estate to work with Christopher Tolkien on the editing of The Silmarillion. This experience inspired his own writing. He uses the fantastic as a vehicle for making relevant to modern readers the most important elements of a given historical period or situation because he feels strongly that history can teach us about the future.

In a 2007 interview with Nancy Pearl on her TV show 'Book Lust”, he said “What I wanted to do was go back to ... myths and legends ... and try to demonstrate to a certain degree the vitality of the core materials that fantasy can draw upon when it's working at its best.” In the same interview he talks about using fantasy to explore social and political themes.

Under Heaven is Kay's 12th novel and takes place in a land called Kitai, based on China in the 8th century during the Tang Dynasty. It begins with Shen Tai, son of a general, still in formal mourning for his father, a revered general in the Kitai army. Tai has chosen to spend 2 years burying the dead at Kuala Nor, the site of his father's last battle. 40,000 men were slaughtered there twenty years before the novel begins. Tai thinks “there were too many. It was beyond hope to ever finish this: it was a task for gods descending from the nine heavens, not for one man. But if you couldn't do everything, did that mean you did nothing?”
It's that last question that is so typical of a Kay novel. His characters always struggle with moral questions and this is what makes them appealing and real to us.
Others have noticed Shen Tai's vigil and he is suddenly given 250 Sardian horses, which are highly prized in the Kitai empire, The empire is often at war and cavalry units play a key role in its military strategy. Tai thinks “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 … two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.” It is an unheard of gift from the court of his enemies in gratitude for the burial of their dead. and it throws Tai into the middle of political intrigue. This gift of Heavenly Horses instantly makes him one of the richest and most powerful men in Kitai—but it also makes him a target for assassination and intrigue, even from his brother, who has become a powerful advisor to the Emperor—and whose master has purchased the courtesan with whom Tai fell in love during his student days.
Think Game of Thrones meets Shogun to get the flavour of this book.
In September 2011 Under Heaven won Canada's Sunburst Award for excellence in the literature of the fantastic in adult fiction. It was a Globe and Mail top 100 book for Canadian fiction in 2010. The American Library Association has picked Under Heaven as the best fantasy novel of 2010, naming it to their 2011 Reading List. It's not just for fantasy junkies like me. Under Heaven has everything you could want in a good read: history, myth, art, poetry, music, war, family conflict, romance and swashbuckling action. Read it because it is a good read—but also a read that will make you think.

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