By Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Penguin Group Canada, March 30, 2010
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the best known writers of historical fiction, having penned novels set in worlds very similar to medieval places like Spain, Provence and Byzantium. In his twelfth novel, Under Heaven, he uses 8th century China as his inspiration in creating the country of Kitai.
This intricately written novel details a complex moment in fictional Kitai’s history as told through the experiences of its main character, Shen Tai. Tai, the son of a respected general, is thrust into the midst of political turmoil when he is given the staggering gift of 250 Sardian horses by the White Jade Princess for burying fallen soldiers of Tagur and Kitai in remote Kuala Nor. Tai’s father, Shen Gao has recently died and Tai decides to honour him by burying the dead as part of his two year mourning period. This distinction comes with a heavy price; it draws Tai into a world of danger, fraught with assassins, court intrigue, rival political factions, unexplained mystical forces, love and difficult choices.
The story starts off slowly with Shen Tai in Kuala Nor, burying the wailing, fallen dead and living a quiet, contemplative life far from politics and city bustle. It builds into a fascinating page turner once Tai receives a missive detailing the Princess’s generous gift forcing him to come out of this quiet existence to fight for survival against political plots and manipulation.
The characters are complex; even small characters play an interesting a role in the book’s plot (a beggar, an under-steward, a fallen poet, a mysterious man from the Steppes). Although the story focuses on Tai, there are many side stories within the greater story of Tai’s Sardian horse crisis; the fate of a past lover, events surrounding Tai’s sister, his brother’s rise in the ranks of the Imperial court and the implications surrounding it. Kay’s book is beautifully written. It brings “Kitai” to life with its vivid urban descriptions, wind swept-Steppes, and picturesque landscapes. It makes the reader forget that they are not reading about China, but a fantastical reflection of it.
I must admit that before I got this book, I was not remotely interested in stories about/set in China – it is an area of history with which I am not familiar. However, once I got Kay’s novel, I was hooked – he delivers a great story with memorable characters. The plot twists and story intricacy will capture the interest of various readers, even if they are not familiar with the Chinese-type back-story upon which it is based. Fans of Kay will not be disappointed by his latest work; and if you haven’t read anything from this author, you should definitely go out and begin your collection with a copy of Under Heaven.