Under Heaven

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven (Roc, 2010) is, in a word, superb.  Like many of his earlier novels (including The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors), this is historical fiction at its absolute best. It’s gorgeously written and, though thoroughly researched, wears its scholarship lightly. Under Heaven is set during the 8th century Tang Dynasty, one of the most dynamic in China’s history (although in the novel the country is called Kitai).  Shen Tai, the son of a general who’d led the Kitai armed forces in its last, devastating war two decades before, decides that he is going to spend the requisite two years of mourning his father’s recent death by journeying to the distant battle site and burying the dead from both sides of the battle, all the while living among the still suffering ghosts of the unburied.  As a result of this seemingly simple decision to honor his father in a non-traditional way, Shen Tai’s life is forever altered in ways that couldn’t be foreseen.  Here, the turn into fantasy is barely noticeable, because it makes perfect sense in the cultural context, and is both poignant and beautifully described.  For me, though, the best aspects of Kay’s novels are always his characters, who are utterly human (and therefore somewhat flawed, with difficult and complicated lives), sympathetic, and amazingly real.  They don’t always get want they want, or at least not in the way they would wish for. Kay’s endings are really never completely happy—his characters are always marked in some manner by the experiences they’ve undergone; they always pay a price for the choices they make.  It’s a shame this book will be shelved in the fantasy and science-fiction section of bookstores and libraries, because that inevitably makes it highly unlikely that fans of historical fiction will find it on their own.  (That’s a good example of one of the many reasons that I dislike our reliance on genre divisions in describing fiction).  Kay is a best seller in his native Canada, and one of my life’s missions is to have him be just as popular with readers here in the U.S., too.  You can watch an interview I did with him in 2007 at: http://www.seattlechannel.org/videos/video.asp?ID=3030703



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6 responses to “Under Heaven

  1. Grandma Misi

    Thanks to you I read this book, my very first G.G. Kay book! I’ve just picked up 4 more from the library and I’m in heaven! Thank you once again for calming my “kid-in-a-candy-store” brain when it comes to books.

  2. Helen

    Guy Gavriel Kay is a favourite and has been since Fionavar. His prose is delightful, his story lines/emotions never disappoint. Under Heaven is a beautiful work – a story of conflict, the pressures of society’s “mores” and I think the little hint of fantasy should be acceptable and perhaps believable to even naysayers of the genre. I will read it a second time ..

  3. nancy pearl

    So glad you liked it as much as I did. Now try The Lions of Al Rassan, Last Light of the Sun, and Sailing to Sarantium

  4. Joe J.

    I loved this book! The writing draws you in and refuses to let you go. And you will be happy to know that Cuyahoga County Public Library has it shelved in regular fiction.

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