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Under Heaven

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Under Heaven (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,8981178,851 (4.13)231
Fantasy. Fiction. Historical Fiction. HTML:Award-winning author Guy Gavriel Kay evokes the dazzling Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China in an masterful story of honor and power.
It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.
You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.
Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already...
… (more)
  1. 140
    The Lions of al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay (Anonymous user)
  2. 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.
  3. 32
    Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart (Cecrow, MyriadBooks)
    Cecrow: A more playful fantasy take on ancient China.
  4. 10
    Shōgun by James Clavell (ajwseven)
  5. 10
    A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham (souloftherose)
  6. 00
    Paladín by C. J. Cherryh (Anonymous user)
  7. 00
    In Love with the Way: Chinese Poems of the Tang Dynasty (The Calligrapher's Notebooks) by François Cheng (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: A historical novel about a Tang poet and the poetry of the period. If you like one, you should try the other
  8. 02
    Wildfire by Sarah Micklem (lottpoet)
    lottpoet: I think these books have in common a person caught up in the machinations of a highly formal society.
  9. 36
    A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin (axelsabro)
    axelsabro: alternate earth fantasy
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» See also 231 mentions

English (113)  Norwegian (1)  All languages (114)
Showing 1-5 of 113 (next | show all)
Having hated Ysabel, I was very pleased to find Kay back to his usual excellence in Under Heaven. I've been reading him for many years and it has been interesting watching him mature as a writer (again, with the exception of Ysabel) from the Fionavar Tapestry days up to Last Light of the Sun and now this. Beautiful! ( )
  Abcdarian | May 18, 2024 |
This book was the February selection for our SF Book Club. Though known for his “fantastical” books, Under Heaven is less a fantasy book than a historical period piece. Kay’s books each have different styles, and are set in very different eras. This one is less lyrical than his other work, which for me was a good thing.

Set in a fictional world that closely mirrors China in the T’ang Dynasty, it is a story about what constitutes honour, duty, and loyalty. Told primarily from the perspective of General Shen’s three oldest children (now adults), the narration switches among several other characters as well: soldiers from several armies, courtesans, staff in key households, and civil servants of various rank in the Emperor’s court. It is a credit to Kay that he weaves these story threads so skillfully that you are always aware of where you are in the overall timeline.

In discussing this book, the Club members agreed to classify it as “historical fantasy” rather than “magical realism”. The “magic” in the book is more akin to superstitions and shamanism, and though becomes an element in one of the plots, is not a pervasive part of the story’s environment. I would not hesitate to recommend this to non-SF readers.

As a character-driven novel, Kay spends some time introducing us to the main protagonist (Second Son Shen Tai). But rather than merely describing him, he allows us to learn of his character, morality, and history through describing his actions. Thus we build a more complete picture of him in our minds; this is all the more powerful when, further in the novel, he must make critical choices and we are fully engaged in the consequences of his decisions.

Kay, with a few strokes, paints a complete picture of the established class hierarchy. It is clear that people not only understand their place in society, but also use established mechanisms of manipulation and guile to secure resources, influence, and power. The impression is of a large, multi-layered, multi-generational chess game. The best players plan moves years in advance.

Court politics are the backdrop through which we see how the several protagonists exercise individualism within the context of a collectivist society. Kay brings these characters to life. By being introduced to them through their thoughts, dreams, desires, they are more real to us than a superficial physical description would accomplish.

The strong societal rules and structures are seen through the reactions of different layers of society to how Shen Tai shows honour to his father. Very early in the book we see that what he did was viewed by royalty and soldiers alike as poetic and respectful, and so demands to be acknowledged in a public way.

By being historical, and yet not real history, we can be objective and view the times with a more critical lens. By the time a key member of the Emperor’s Court is killed, we understand that it is collateral damage to the larger issues of State. We feel how the dictates of rigid societal customs require putting the needs of the population ahead of what is fair or just for an individual. The novel has set up the world so that we accept this injustice while at the same time regretting its necessity.

Women in this time live in the interstitial spaces created by the men. Since the men have overt power over the women, the women must manipulate events in indirect ways, using the complex rules of society and custom to their advantage. This requirement in no way diminishes the intelligence, power, or strength (both physical and mental) of the main female characters. In fact, because they must do things within such constraints, their importance to the larger picture is more apparent to us. The main female protagonists in the novel (Shen Li Mai, the consort Spring Rain, the neighbouring Queen, the Emperor’s Consort, the ninjas) all used the tools available to them to affect major political change.

General Shen, the father of the three Shen children, also has agency. Certain actions in his past haunt him; he communicates this to the Second Son (Shen Tai). This directly influences Shen Tai’s choice of how to grieve, which sets the whole novel into motion. Though already dead at the beginning of the novel, the General still strongly influences the behaviour of his children throughout the book.

I had been exposed to Kay’s work many years ago and did not recollect liking what I read. However, after a slow first chapter, the book’s characters and story gripped me and I finished it in two marathon sittings. At 592 pages, it cannot be called a “quick read”; it is, however, absorbing and engaging. The writing is superior and the story makes it a real page-turner. The map at the front of the book is also very helpful when geographic/travel info is imparted and Kay does a good job reusing character names to help keep the narrative thread straight.

At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to people whose lives are about to be thrown into flux; when we take our leave they have come to peace with their role in their country’s story. When the novel ended, I was keen to know more about what happened next to the various characters I had met, and searched to see if Kay had written a sequel. Nope.

I am still thinking about the book weeks later. ( )
  Dorothy2012 | Apr 22, 2024 |
This book suffered from the same problem Kay seems to face in all of his lesser works - it's trying way too hard. Rather than let the story lead the reader to conclusions about the meanings of events of their place in history, Kay feels the need to repeatedly bash his readers over the head with how Epic and Poetic everything is. It worked out well enough in the Sarantine series because the story was compelling, but in this book (which awkwardly recycles a lot of the characters from that series, except made Chinese and more poetry obsessed) the story was so amazingly unexciting that the bluntness didn't fly at all.

Still, I like his writing more than most average books, so I'll give it a 3, and recommend it only to people who have read his many better books and (like me) feel the need to read them all. ( )
  mrbearbooks | Apr 22, 2024 |
It had a great start, got me interested in the characters and had a neat Imperial China feel. Unfortunately, the ending felt really rushed, leaving me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. ( )
  yaj70 | Jan 22, 2024 |
Oh, the prose in this was lovely, as exquisite as the poems quoted by characters (I somewhat wish I had paid more attention in premodern Chinese lit- I recognized some of the names of the poets in the acknowledgements section, but alas. I do remember the symbolism behind a lonely goose, though, and something about the four major beauties). I picked this up because I've been meaning to read a GGK, and it's not often you come across a fantasy novel set in an Asian culture (though given the fantastic elements aren't front and center, this is about as low fantasy as ASoIaF- touches of it here and there, but not omnipresent). Ironically, one of the nonfiction books I read earlier this month mentioned real-life Tang dynasty emperor Taizong who loved horses, and the famed Ferghana horses who allegedly sweat blood.

There are action scenes, there is violence, but it feels subdued, perhaps because our perspective characters spend quite a bit of time thinking to themselves. Looks like the library has [b:River of Stars|15808474|River of Stars|Guy Gavriel Kay|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1356089847s/15808474.jpg|21451403] so I can move on swiftly! ( )
  Daumari | Dec 28, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 113 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kay, Guy Gavrielprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Springett, MartinMapsecondary authorsome 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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Wikipedia in English (1)

Fantasy. Fiction. Historical Fiction. HTML:Award-winning author Guy Gavriel Kay evokes the dazzling Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China in an masterful story of honor and power.
It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.
You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.
Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already...

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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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