Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Synopsis from GoodReads:
It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father’s last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.
You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give 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.
Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already…
I’ve heard Kay’s name mentioned a lot when it comes to good sci-fi/fantasy writers, so I knew I eventually wanted to pick up one of his novels. So I went to the library and grabbed the first one I saw that wasn’t in the middle of a series.
And I wasn’t disappointed.
While Under Heaven started a little slow it built quickly. The story primarily follows both Shen Tai and his sister, Li-Mei, on their paths through the Kitan Empire and the lands beyond, with a courtesan named Spring Rain serving as a tertiary protagonist. There are scenes from other people’s perspectives (albeit all in third person), but those are arguably the three main characters, although Tai gets the most pages dedicated to his journey.
The way different paths unfold and intersect, the way characters reveal different sides to themselves, the culture and the people – it all unfolds beautifully. Yes, there is a distance to a lot of what happens, for me at least – I found it difficult to get too emotionally caught up a lot of the time – but it works with the way the story is being told. And, honestly, I didn’t mind that distance except at the beginning, before I fell into the story.
I’m not sure that Under Heaven has a particular theme but, if it does, it is surely fate and coincidence. What is deliberate and what is pretense. At the end of the story, my only complaint was that the next book in the series takes place hundreds of years later. The epilogue in particular left me wanting to know more about these characters and what they do next. Unfortunately, that seems to not be.
Kay might set his work in a fantastical setting but it was easy to see Ancient China, beset by enemies on all sides, in Under Heaven and I think that made me love the novel even more.
4 out of 5 stars. If you’re looking for light fantasy with a historical bent, this is a good novel (if you can get past the length) – what little ‘magic’ is present is left mostly ambiguous about whether it works or not.