Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
ROC/New American Library (a division of Penguin Group), May 2010
I read a lot; many more books than I review on this blog. Most of the books I read are pretty good, worth noticing. Some are better than pretty good, and deserve a wide audience. But it has been a long time since I have read a book as exquisite as Guy Gavriel Kay’s new offering, Under Heaven.
I was intensely interested in reading this book, having been enthralled with Kay’s last novel, The Last Light of the Sun. As with that book, Under Heaven is not total fiction, and not completely literal, but instead takes the feel and accoutrements of a given time in our real world history, and creates something new and fluid from that structure. With The Last Light of the Sun, it was the clash between ancient Britain and the Vikings; this time his story is modeled after the Tang dynasty, which ruled China from 618 to 907 AD. The key phrase, however, is “modeled after”.
In this amazing novel, we meet Shen Tai, the second son of a former military general of the Imperial Kitan army. Tai had been a typical student, preparing to sit for his examinations, hoping for an assignment to some type of ministry position, and enamored of a green eyed courtesan from the pleasure district of the capital of Xinan. The kingdom of Emperor Taizu had been enjoying a period of prosperity, benefiting from a tenuous peace with neighboring Tagur after the horrendous battle of Kuala Nor where 40,000 men had died. Tai’s father, General Shen Gao, had led the victorious forces at Kuala Nor, and brought great honor to his Emperor and family. However, shortly after his great victory, Shen Gao left the royal court to retire to his country home, to live out the rest of his life in modesty and reflection.
When General Shen Gao dies, Shen Tai’s comfortable life was interrupted. Deeply affected by his father’s final years, Tai elects to honor Shen Gao during the traditional two year period of mourning by retreating to the haunted battlefield at Kuala Nor, and labor for those two years burying the dead who had fallen there. This time amongst the ghosts of battle, where the bones and groans of the dead are indistinguishable between opponents, changes Shen Tai from a sensitive and poetic student to a deeply introspective citizen of the time in which he lives.
But this is only the backdrop for the story that unfolds in Kay’s magnificent novel. One fateful day, two sets of visitors come to Shen Tai’s remote cabin deep in the haunted valley. One brings news that his honorable deeds at Kuala Nor has been noticed by the Kitan born Princess of Turgan, and she has bestowed on him a gift beyond imagination: 250 of the magnificent Heavenly Horses of Sardia. The other set includes an innocent friend and a hidden assassin, both of whom die before the purpose of their visit is exposed.
From this point forward, Tai’s life is altered, and he must learn how to navigate the treacherous labyrinth of court intrigue where his own brother sits next to a seat of power and the women he once loved is the favorite companion of the most powerful man next to the Emperor himself. Enter into this a self-appointed ninja guardian, a sister used as a pawn in a game of imperial maneuvering, a beautiful courtesan who rules the Emperor and possibly the kingdom, and a bacchanalian poet of great renown, and you have threads of a story that is woven deftly into a wonderful literary tapestry that never once in its 500-plus pages has a moment of disingenuity or dross.
I’m not going to say more about the story, because I want it to unfold as beautifully for you, the hoped for reader, as it did for me. I will say, however, that when I read the last page of this book, I shed a few tears. Not because the story was overtly sad, or because I was sad that my experience had ended, but because I had the sense of being a part of such beauty that I could not but be affected by it. It truly touched me deeply, like a perfect poem or a beloved painting, or like being part of a beautiful choral piece that is so achingly precious that it takes your breath away.
Under Heaven really is that good. Read it, and judge for yourself. If you don’t marvel at the end of it – and indeed, throughout the reading of it – I’ll be extremely surprised. But I won’t be. It really is that good.