Under Heaven

Under Heaven
Guy Gavriel Kay, 2010

Premise: After the death of his father the great general, Shen Tai chooses to honor his father's life by spending his mourning years laying the dead to rest in a haunted battleground. For this deed he is granted respect and honor from his native land of Kitai, and two hundred and fifty priceless horses from the neighboring realm of Tagur. Now Tai must return to civilization and relearn how to survive the delicate and deadly dance of life at the court at Xinan. At least long enough to use his new wealth to secure his family and figure out who could be trying to kill him.
 "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 ponies of the steppes.
The Princess Cheng-Wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses."

Guy Gavriel Kay has made a career out of thoughtful, almost quiet fantasies. I am not a fan of The Finonavar Tapestry, but I have consistently enjoyed his alternate histories. Other ones I've read by him include A Song for Arbonne: a fantasy set in an alternate Europe, focusing on the lives of troubadors. The Sarantine Mosaic is set in an alternate Byzantine Empire.

Under Heaven is set in an alternate China, circa 750 AD. And so, it is as much about the wealth, influence and culture of Kitai (China) as it is about the characters. In fact, some of the plot and many characters are lifted directly from history (albeit altered for the purposes of the tale).

I very much enjoyed this book. It is contemplative, which feels right for the setting. Even when events are rushing by quickly and there is action and violence, there is a propriety to the characters, and always an awareness of the importance of poetry in the way they think about the world.
"The slash-and-withdraw was precise, elegant, her wrist flexed, the blade swiftly returned – to be levelled towards where Tai had been. No time seeming to have passed: time held and controlled. The Kanlin were taught that way."
All of the prose is lovely like that, although the plot loses some steam in the final third of the book. I didn't like parts of the ending as much as the rest, because some of the character resolution felt forced, it almost explained too much.

Unanswered questions don't bother me in a book like this. As usual, Kay has a nice turn with mysticism; he presents the supernatural without explanation, giving just enough information so that you understand what the characters understand, which is never the whole truth. The repetition of the theme of horses in the various plot threads is also a nice touch.

I also enjoyed the exploration of women's roles throughout the novel: the complicated power wielded by the women of the court through beauty and subtle strategy, the emotional strength of Shen Li-Mei, Tai's sister, and the physical strength of Wei Song, a trained warrior and bodyguard.

I imagine that students of Chinese history will be able to see aspects of the plot coming, though I could not. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to educate myself some about a fascinating period.

Despite a weakness in the ending, I'm giving it

5 Stars – An Awesome Book


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