Under Heaven


Guy Gavriel Kay


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

October 16, 2010

he first three quarters of Under Heaven are marvelous. I super impressed, I thought Kay had written something as excellent as Sailing to Sarantium. In Under Heaven, Kay describes a mythical kingdom, called Kitai, which is obviously based upon ancient China. In Kay's world, the Emperor Taizu (may he reign forever) presides over the Ninth Dynasty.

Shen Tai is the second son of a famous, but dead general. His brilliant older brother is an accomplished assistant to the Prime Minister, the evil Wen Zhou. But Shen Tai has not been able to decided what to do with his life. Shen Tai has tried serving in the military (there is a great flashback when Shen Tai describes a military adventure beyond the Great Wall, where he interrupted a strange service by some barbarian druids), and Shen Tai has tried joining the Kanlin Warriors at Stone Drum Mountain - but found he was unsuited to their discipline. Now Shen Tai has retreated to remote mountain area, in the land between the Kitai Empire and the Taguran Empire. At this desolate mountain lake, 20 years earlier, a major battle was fought between the Targurans and the Kitains - in fact, Shen Tai's father commanded the Emperor's forces in that battle. Now the two empires are at peace, but the bones of tens of thousands of unburied soldiers lie strewn about the landscape. Shen Tai has taken upon himself to bury those bones, from soldiers on both sides, so that their ghosts may have rest.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a master at mixing in a bit of magic to his alternate history novels, which is why they are routinely classified as fantasy stories. In this novel, the ghosts of the unburied soldiers are real. The barbaric rite of the druids that Shen Tai interrupted on the steppe was a real ceremony, meaning it wasn't just a superstitious ritual.

In addition to Shen Tai's main story, Kay has added an intriguing story arc regarding his sister, Li-Mei. The emperor has elevated Li-Mei to the rank of princess, an incredible honor, but then the empire has offered her as a bride to the leader of the barbarian Bogu tribe north of the Great Wall. Li-Mei is a peace offering to the Bogu. Meshag, a strange figure labouring under a magical curse, rescues Li-Mei and a thrilling story of chase across the steppe ensues. But this story arc never ties back into the overall thread, and in Kay seems to lose interest in telling it fully. Intriguing as the story of Princess Li-Mei may be, Kay might have been better off focusing on the main story of Shen Tai.

As Shen Tai rides toward the capital city of Xinan to tell the emperor of his amazing gift of 250 Sardian horses, he is beset by assassins, lured by beautiful women, and offered alliances by powerful men. To protect him, a Kanlin warrior named Wei Song stands as bodyguard, and Wei Song's story arc could also have been developed more fully - there are intriguing hints of a great backstory here that Kay doesn't flesh out.

Along the road to Xinan, Shen Tai meets An-Lin, the fearsome commander of the 7th, 8th AND 9th armies of the empire. He also meets Wen Jian, the incredibly beautiful consort to the emperor himself. There is a host of intrigue happening here, and Kay is wonderful at telling the reader about the politics, ambitions, rivalries and plots around the royal court.

I thought that this novel would be an entertaining story of imperial intrigue and conspiracy, with our hero, Shen Tai - a man from outside the world of the imperial court, suddenly thrust into an untrustworthy morass of plots and danger. The major actors are all introduced - the evil prime minister Wen Zhou (ablely advised by Shen Tai's ambitious older brother!), the seductive Wen Jian, and the fearsome army general An-Lin. But almost as soon as the intrigues are set into motion, the novel fades into a strange format, which reads like a "detailed outline" but certainly not a fully written novel. I got the feeling the Kay got tired of writing this book, or faced a deadline, or something, because the writing switches into synopsis mode - Kay gives the rest of the tale, but it reads like a "Cliff Notes" version. I was really disappointed, because I thought the first three quarters of the novel were super impressive.

The story arc of Spring Rain never goes any where. She is the concubine of the evil Wen Zhou, but secretly she loves Shen Tai. It was Spring Rain who hired the Kanlin warrior Wei Song to protect Shan Tai from assassins. The novel prepares fertile ground for this to be the major love interest - will it be unrequited? We get all the backstory of how Spring Rain and Shen Tai can secretly communicate via a beggar who camps outside the wall - but as soon as this thread is developed, it is tossed aside.

What about the fox woman - the secretive goddess who may be intervening in Shen Tai's life? This thread too is undeveloped. I would have loved to know her role in Shan Tai's life.

Sima Zian - the always drunken poet - what purpose did he serve?

Under Heaven was recommended by Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire here in Seattle. There is a lot like about this novel, I just wish Kay and written it fully, expanded all the story arcs and written a big two volume story - then it would have matched his Sailing to Sarantium masterpiece.