To honor his deceased father, a general who led imperial forces in their last great war, Shen Tai has spent two years alone at a battle site by a mountain lake, burying the dead. At night he can hear the ghosts moan and stir. When a voice falls silent he knows that a ghost has been laid to rest.
One morning he learns that his vigil has been noticed at the highest level: the court of their one-time enemy is pleased to bestow on him two hundred and fifty coveted western horses. The Heavenly Horses are an overwhelming gift. They exalt Tai, and could bring him great power – or have him killed before he ever leaves the mountains, let alone reaches the imperial city.
Before he leaves the lake, he is threatened and a friend, murdered. Then things get more difficult as Tai hires a female body guard who annoys and attracts him, is tempted and threatened by local magistrates and entwines himself in an Empire-shaking rebellion. “Under Heaven” is the story of Tai’s journey home to his former life and all the unrest entailed there; it is a tale filled with love, loyalty and secret machinations.
The novel is set in an alternative world’s version of the Tang Dynasty during the An Lushan Rebellion (circa 755-763 A.D.) and is Kay’s first foray beyond a European setting. He does a memorable job. There are no jarring moments of modernism or western thought. He did a few atypical things, including a list of names due to the wide cast of characters. He also draws out the ending more than his norm, using it to tie up the various characters’ stories and leaving little ambiguity to the novel’s conclusion. This book has all of the characters and lovely language of a typical Kay novel, but strikes a balance between the plot’s strengths and Kay’s characterizations. Although he’s had stronger characters in previous novels, the denizens of Kitai were real individuals whom I cared for, identified with and plan on re-visiting soon.
For instance, the following extraordinary moment of characterization evokes young love, and the creation of life-long friendships within five sentences:
She shook her golden hair and gave him a look he knew well by then. I am enamoured of an idiot who will never amount to anything was, more or less, the import of the glance.
Tai found it amusing, sometimes said so. She found his saying so a cause of more extreme irritation. This, too, amused him, and she knew it.
For a moment after reading that passage, I flashed back to college. My (future) husband said something intended to exasperate and I responded with this exact look, or perhaps with a comment designed to make him laugh. Remembering that, I became Tai’s lover in this scene. That’s where Kay’s greatest skill lies; he doesn’t write fiction. He writes about us. Throughout his novels, Guy Gavriel Kay enlarges our foibles, failings, successes and courage into an enormous ongoing scene – a tapestry we love examining to find where he put us this time.
A fan asked me recently, “Am I going to hate him for being so good? Am I going to be inspired?” My response: “Was there ever any doubt?”
At the first viewing, one is dazzled by the audacity and beauty of “Under Heaven,” but like so many works of great art, it cannot be consumed in one sitting or in one reading. The reader will need to view it many times before appreciating the depth of craftsmanship. I expect to find the book grows in power upon a second and third reading.
“Under Heaven” is an adult novel, but is accessible to mature young adult readers. It was released April 27th by Roc.
Victoria Dixon writes book reviews and writer advice columns at http://ronempress.blogspot.com.