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Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
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Under Heaven (edition 2011)

by Guy Gavriel Kay

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1,220866,532 (4.14)175
Member:wagner.sarah35
Title:Under Heaven
Authors:Guy Gavriel Kay
Info:Roc Trade (2011), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 608 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****
Tags:fantasy, China, Tang Dynasty, alternative history, horses, war, epic, 2012

Work details

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Recently added byprivate library, sibyx, peterveen, LizzieD, thefirstdark, donw146, Kkamm, MK_SFF_Club, bunnikins
  1. 130
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    Bridge of Birds: A Novel of Ancient China That Never Was by Barry Hughart (Cecrow, MyriadBooks)
    Cecrow: Another fantasy take on ancient China.
  5. 10
    The Court of the Lion: A Novel of the T'Ang Dynasty by Eleanor Cooney (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: A historical fiction novel of the Tang Dynasty, ably relating the same events upon which 'Under Heaven' is based but in their actual Chinese setting.
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    The Paladin by C. J. Cherryh (Anonymous user)
  7. 00
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    aulsmith: A historical novel about a Tang poet and the poetry of the period. If you like one, you should try the other
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Showing 1-5 of 85 (next | show all)
I picked this up on a whim and was blown away by the opening section. I've read reviews by people who DNF'd, which just tells you that every reader is different. I was having trouble with the ebook version and when I found a trade paperback copy in the airport bookstore just before two long flights, I bought it. I picked up where I'd left off in the ebook and kept reading straight through until I finished. I had to stop myself from going back to the beginning and rereading it (it is 575 pages, after all, I'd read nothing else the rest of the month if I did that).

The story is about a younger son who is given the gift of "too many horses." Shen Tai has spent nearly two years in a remote part of Kitai (GGK's version of Tang China), honoring his deceased father by burying the bones of fallen soldiers on a site of many battles between Kitai and one of her main rivals. The princess of the former enemy recognizes his actions by giving him the gift of 250 spectacular, highly prized horses. This gift thrusts Tai back into the world and especially the world of court politics at Kitai's capital, Xinan. He re-encounters his elder brother, a powerful mandarin, as well as the various factions warring for power. Everyone wants the horses. Tai is alternately attacked, seduced, and bribed.

While Tai is the main narrator and the plot unfolds through his current and past actions, there are also storylines involving his sister and his former lover; his sister is shipped off to the "barbarian" rulers of the northern steppes as a bride while his lover has become the consort of the Prime Minister.

Like all of Kay's books, this is epic in sweep and lyrical in prose, but something about it really grabbed me and wouldn't let go. Partly it's that I found Tai's story and personality very compelling; he was a character I wanted to spend time with. Partly it's that the court politics are very well done. And partly it's that the women are really interesting, from his Kanlin guard, Wei Song, to his sister, to his former lover Spring Rain, to Wen Jian, the emperor's Precious Consort. The smaller roles are equally rich and varied. And of course the world-building is terrific. I know readers have mixed feelings about Kay's insistence on historical fantasy to describe his books, as opposed to historical fiction, but it works for me.

For example, the great poet, Li Bai, is reimagined here as the Banished Immortal Sima Zian. He's a memorable character, and because I'm not treating this as historical fiction I'm not constantly wondering whether this is what Li Bai was really like, or where Kay got his historical material from. Instead, I treat Sima Zian as a unique individual who apparently overlaps with real-life poets. I know I'm learning something about medieval China, but I'm not tucking away fictional representations as if they're facts. And even if Kay is borrowing from real history, it feels like he's making it his own story using his own imagination. ( )
  Sunita_p | Mar 6, 2016 |
Historical fiction heavily influenced by the Chinese Tang Dynasty, with a faint brush of the fantastical.

Shen Tai has spent the last two years mourning his father and burying the the dead of a decades-old battle ground. It's a quiet, mostly solitary life, punctuated by monthly supply runs from both countries that fought the war (who seek both to honor his work and to outdo each other in courtesy) and by the wails of the dead. But at last, an old friend visits, bringing news from the capital.

Tai is swept up into the plots and schemes of his empire, while yearning desperately for a way to reclaim his lost love and rescue his sister from a political marriage to barbarians.

This book should have been a lot better than it actually was. The poetry is not particularly good, which is a huge problem when so much of the book is poems. When characters catch their breath at the transcendent beauty of a poem, those poems better be more eloquent than any teenager's fumbling attempts to copy a haiku. The characters themselves are interesting, but Kay doesn't seem all that excited by or emotionally attached to them, and neither was I. The pacing of the plot was rather haphazard--nothing much happens for 400 pages, and then suddenly WAR and DEVASTATION and FAMINE. (It's so grim and realistic, guys. Ooh, how bout another half-assed poem to capture the ~sorrow~ of it all?) A mob of armed men demands someone's death, and Tai and another character have a THREE PAGE conversation while everyone else stands there watching them. I get that it's a formal, stylized sort of culture, but geez, no mob is going to calmly wait while you have a three page heart-to-heart. The Kanlin (ninja mercenaries with a precise understanding of honor and loyalty) are nearly a deus ex machina at times. And the writing is so damn stilted that I nearly gave up on this book. He loves fragments. He loves comma splices. He loves to have characters exchange words the reader doesn't hear, and then refer to this conversation in self-important tones for chapters until all the juice of the ~enigma~ has been milked out. Blargh!

All that said. This is still Guy Gavriel Kay. Even when his characters are pale retreads of other characters, his poems clunky, his plot less clever than he thinks it is, it's still a damn sight better than the vast majority of fantasy out there. I don't know how closely he followed the Tang dynasty, but he describes a culture in vivid and alluring detail. And there are scenes (as when Tai thinks about his complicated relationship with his brother) that feel true and are eloquent indeed. It's not a book I'd recommend to everyone, but it's worth it for those looking for an ambitious piece of historical fiction. ( )
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
After his father, a general who led the forces of imperial Kitai in its last great war, passed away, Shen Tai chooses to honor his memory by traveling to the battle field that haunted his father in later life. So many soldiers from both sides died that the dead were left where they fell. Since no one buried the bodies, the ghosts of the soldiers were never able to pass to heaven and during the nights around the site of their death they yell and moan and cry out. Shen Tai spends two years of his life, during the mourning period for his father, burying the bodies of the soldiers from both sides. It is an impossible job to complete and after two years he has barely made a dent. He has, however, earned the respect of people from both sides who take turns bringing him supplies. When his mourning period came to an end, The White Jade Princess Cheng-Wan, seventeenth daughter of the Emperor of Kitai, sent west after this last battle to seal the peace with Tagur (the former enemy), decides to present Shen Tai with an enormous gift, two hundred fifty Sardian horses. One of these legendary horses would have brought Shen Tai great prestige and riches, 250 of them is unthinkable and could put Shen Tai's life in danger. The gift plunges Shen Tai into the political quagmire of Kitai and into the fast flowing history of the empire.

I really enjoyed this historical fantasy novel. I liked the political intrigue and enjoyed being immersed in a different culture. The characters were interesting and complex. I thought Kay could have taken the story deeper, it felt like he took a lot of time to set up the story and then the end seemed to be rushed to me. Perhaps that is because I am used to series in this genre, and this is a stand alone novel. However, I have read Tigana by Kay, which was also a stand alone epic historical fiction novel, and that one is one of my favorites and did not feel rushed at the end. That aside, I really liked Under Heaven and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in historical fiction. ( )
  Cora-R | Jan 17, 2016 |
After his father, a general who led the forces of imperial Kitai in its last great war, passed away, Shen Tai chooses to honor his memory by traveling to the battle field that haunted his father in later life. So many soldiers from both sides died that the dead were left where they fell. Since no one buried the bodies, the ghosts of the soldiers were never able to pass to heaven and during the nights around the site of their death they yell and moan and cry out. Shen Tai spends two years of his life, during the mourning period for his father, burying the bodies of the soldiers from both sides. It is an impossible job to complete and after two years he has barely made a dent. He has, however, earned the respect of people from both sides who take turns bringing him supplies. When his mourning period came to an end, The White Jade Princess Cheng-Wan, seventeenth daughter of the Emperor of Kitai, sent west after this last battle to seal the peace with Tagur (the former enemy), decides to present Shen Tai with an enormous gift, two hundred fifty Sardian horses. One of these legendary horses would have brought Shen Tai great prestige and riches, 250 of them is unthinkable and could put Shen Tai's life in danger. The gift plunges Shen Tai into the political quagmire of Kitai and into the fast flowing history of the empire.

I really enjoyed this historical fantasy novel. I liked the political intrigue and enjoyed being immersed in a different culture. The characters were interesting and complex. I thought Kay could have taken the story deeper, it felt like he took a lot of time to set up the story and then the end seemed to be rushed to me. Perhaps that is because I am used to series in this genre, and this is a stand alone novel. However, I have read Tigana by Kay, which was also a stand alone epic historical fiction novel, and that one is one of my favorites and did not feel rushed at the end. That aside, I really liked Under Heaven and I would definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in historical fiction. ( )
  Cora-R | Jan 13, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Guy Gavriel Kayprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Vance, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
With bronze as a mirror one can correct one's appearance; with history as a mirror, one can understand the rise and fall of a state; with good men as a mirror, one can distinguish right from wrong.
—LI SHIMIN, TANK EMPEROR TAIZONG
Dedication
to Sybil,
with love
First words
Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.
Quotations
And it isn't worth hating. It really isn't. . . . You did need to decide what mattered, and concentrate on that. Otherwise your life force would be scattered to the five directions, and wasted.

He would be among them today. And he couldn't learn that rhythm, not in the time he had. So he wouldn't even try. He'd go another way, like a holy wanderer of the Sacred Path choosing at a fork in the road, following his own truth, a hermit laughing in the mountains.
Sometimes fear is proper. It is what we do that matters.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
An epic historical adventure set in a pseudo 8th century China, from the author of the 2008 World Fantasy winner, Ysabel. Under Heaven is a novel of heroes, assassins, concubines and emperors set against a majestic and unforgiving landscape.

For two long years Shen Tai has mourned his father, living like a hermit at the edge of the Kitan Empire, next to a great lake where a terrible battle was fought between the Kitai and the neighbouring Tagurans years before; a battle for which his father - a great general - was honoured, but never recovered from, and where the bones of 40,000 soldiers still lie exposed. To assuage some of his dead father's regret over the battle, Tai begins to bury the dead. His supplies are replenished by his own people from a nearby fort, and also - now that peace has been bought with the bartering of an imperial princess - by the Tagurans, for his long service to their dead. His seclusion is disturbed by a letter from the bartered Princess Cheng-wan. It contains a poisoned chalice: Tai has been gifted 250 Sardian horses for his service to the Taguran dead - highly-prized animals, long-desired by the Kitans for their cavalry. The owner of such a vast number would instantly be bestowed with great power and wealth. The horses are being held for him to claim, but getting to them alive, will be tricky. And that isn't Tai's only problem. As he makes ready to leave, another visitor arrives; this time from Xinan, his home in the south. Yan, Tai's childhood carousing companion, has made the colossal journey north with only a hired Kanlin guard for safety. The soft-bellied poet has risked so much because the news he carries is urgent; but before he can so much as greet his old friend, Yan is slaughtered by his Kanlin guard, who then turns her swords towards a defenceless Tai. The Princess's generosity has made Tai a target, but who wanted to kill him even before news of her gift had spread?

(c) Harper Collins
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Award-winning author Guy Kay evokes the dazzling Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China in a story of honor and power.

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