Under Heaven

It doesn't habitually take this long for me to write a review, but I needed time to let Under Heaven sink in properly before doing so. I needed time to gather my thoughts to come up with something that would fully encompass how I felt when I reached the last page of Guy Gavriel Kay's latest. And yet, though I've given this much thought, I'm woefully aware that this pathetic review can never do justice to just how grandiose Under Heaven truly is. Simply put, this is one of the very best novels I have ever read.

Indeed, Under Heaven showcases a Guy Gavriel Kay at the top of his game. No stranger to quality books and memorable reads that remain with you long after you've reached their ending, the author has set the bar rather high throughout his career. To be honest, I doubted that Kay could ever produce a work that would surpass Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan. Of course, I should have known better than to think that Kay had already reached his peak. And with Under Heaven, Kay came up with his best work thus far.

Here's the blurb:

UNDER HEAVEN will be published in April 2010, and takes place in a world inspired by the glory and power of Tang Dynasty China in the 8th century, a world in which history and the fantastic meld into something both memorable and emotionally compelling. In the novel, Shen Tai is the son of a general who led the forces of imperial Kitai in the empire's last great war against its western enemies, twenty years before. Forty thousand men, on both sides, were slain by a remote mountain lake. General Shen Gao himself has died recently, having spoken to his son in later years about his sadness in the matter of this terrible battle.

To honour his father's memory, Tai spends two years in official mourning alone at the battle site by the blue waters of Kuala Nor. Each day he digs graves in hard ground to bury the bones of the dead. At night he can hear the ghosts moan and stir, terrifying voices of anger and lament. Sometimes he realizes that a given voice has ceased its crying, and he knows that is one he has laid to rest.

The dead by the lake are equally Kitan and their Taguran foes; there is no way to tell the bones apart, and he buries them all with honour.

It is during a routine supply visit led by a Taguran officer who has reluctantly come to befriend him that Tai learns that others, much more powerful, have taken note of his vigil. The White Jade Princess Cheng-wan, 17th daughter of the Emperor of Kitai, presents him with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. They are being given in royal recognition of his courage and piety, and the honour he has done the dead. You gave a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly.

You gave 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. Tai is in deep waters. He needs to get himself back to court and his own emperor, alive. Riding the first of the Sardian horses, and bringing news of the rest, he starts east towards the glittering, dangerous capital of Kitai, and the Ta-Ming Palace - and gathers his wits for a return from solitude by a mountain lake to his own forever-altered life.

Under Heaven is another one of Kay's history-based fantasy yarns. The worldbuilding was inspired by the Tang Dynasty of 8th centure China. Richly detailed, the book enthralls you from the very beginning. Not since the Sarantine Mosaic has Guy Gavriel Kay come up with such an evocative narrative and arresting imagery. Not that The Last Light of the Sun and Ysabel were lacking in that regard, mind you. But Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors swept you off your feet and immersed you into the Byzantine multilayered intrigues from the start. Under Heaven, if you can believe this, is even more powerful. History buffs might disagree, yet I feel that Kay captured the moods and nuances of his chosen setting to perfection. And this richness of details make for an even more impressive reading experience.

Still, beyond the vividly depicted environment, it's the superb characterization that makes Under Heaven impossible to put down. Guy Gavriel Kay has always possessed a deft human touch and his past novels are filled with memorable characters. In this one, the author has outdone himself. As the main protagonist, Shen Tai takes center stage and is a well-realized three-dimensional character. But his tale would never be as touching without the presence of men and women like the Kanlin Warrior Wei Song, the poet Sima Zian, the courtesan Spring Rain, or the Taguran officer Bytsan sri Nespo. Although the fate of the entire empire of Kitai could be on the brink of doom, at its heart Under Heaven remains a character-driven work revolving around the lives of the members of the Shen family; Shen Tai, his brother Shen Liu, now principal advisor to the first minister, and their sister Shen Li-Mei.

Absorbing, Under Heaven is the sort of book you wish would never end. It does start a bit slow, yet as you read along you realize that Kay was just laying the groundwork for what is to come. I felt at times that there was more than enough material to warrant at least a duology. However, looking back, I feel that drawing out the story, though it would have fleshed out certain events and characters, would indubitably have robbed readers of such a moving ending. The momentum would never have been the same had the book been split into two installments. In retrospect, I can't find a single thing I didn't like about this one. . .

Although it's still early in the year, I'll go out on a limb and predict that Under Heaven will be the speculative fiction novel of 2010. For the life of me I can't imagine having the privilege to read any work matching, let alone surpassing, the magic of this book. Novels don't come much better than this.

Award-winning author Guy Gavriel Kay has been one of my favorite writers for years. Hence, it came as no surprise that Under Heaven turned out to be a gorgeous and unforgettable work. I expected no less from Kay. What I didn't expect was the feeling of awe that left me speechless when I reached the end. . .

The ARC contains an interesting letter from Kay talking about why he writes history-inspired fantasy novels. Here's a quote I liked:

Using the fantastic as a prism for the past, done properly, means that a tale is universalized in powerful ways. When I wrote Tigana, a novel about the way tyranny tries to erase identity in conquered peoples, the fantasy setting seems to have done exactly that: I'm asked in places ranging from Korea to Poland to Croatia to Quebec, "Were you writing about us?"

I was. All of them. That's the point. The fantastic is a tool in the writer's arsenal, as powerful as any there is.

My hope is that Under Heaven offers power and pleasure: an immersion into a world and its characters, but also material for thought when the last page is turned. And my belief is that treating the story in the way that I do might add to both of these.

In the end, always and for every writer, it is for the reader to decide. We place our work in your hands, and wait to hear.

Well, Mr. Kay, I would say it's mission accomplished. And then some!

Do yourself a favor and read Kay's Under Heaven. This book deserves the highest possible recommendation.

The final verdict: 10/10

For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe

16 commentaires:

Gabriele Campbell said...

I think that's the first time you've given a 10. :)

I'd have bought that one anwyway, being a Kay fan, but you really make me anticipate it.

Anonymous said...

Kay has always been a favourite of mine as well; Tigana being the best standalone I've ever read. Glad to hear this newest is as good as I hoped it would be.

I find the best thing about the fantasy/historical thing Kay does, is that afterwards I always find myself researching the area/era that Kay is roughly parraleling.

Thanks for the review Pat,


alabrava said...

Kay was the first writer I read after Tolkien, and he's still maybe my favorite.

Jeff said...

Wow. I used to have a "buy the hard cover without checking the reviews" policy with GGK, but after last light of the sun, and Ysabel I was going to take a "wait and see" attitude with this one. However, with this review I may have to go back to buying the hard cover the day it comes out.


Memory said...

Oh, this is so tempting! I'm going to see Kay read and sign on the 29th of April, but I'm flying around the world the very next day and don't think I can justify hauling a hardcover along with me. Sigh.

Chataya said...

Oooh! I am dying for this book. The sample chapter on the Bright Weavings website really has a lot of promise, and I can see that being fulfilled though your review.

Abyss said...

Y'know Pat, i usually wait for mmpbs for GGK books, but i think you just convinced me to move this up to hb and grab asap.

- Abyss, whose wallet hates you sometimes.

pacamanca said...

Totally agree with Andrew on the researching thing. I love books that do that to me!

I absolutely love GGK and it would be hard to pick a favorite. I'm reading Ysabel right now and enjoying it very much, although it's clearly nowhere near his previous books (the only ones I haven't read are the Mosaics, which of course I'm buying RIGHT AT THE MOMENT on Amazon - darn you, Patrick!). And now, darn you again, I can't wait to read this! If it's as good as you say it is, which I believe it is, I'll be mentally immersed in China for the rest of the year :P

Yagiz [Between Two Books] said...

I had been holding on to my review for 10 days before posting it last night for the official launch of Speculative Book Review (We also have a nice interview with Kay. The interview includes a few questions about Under Heaven). During that time, I refused to read other reviews of Under Heaven, not to get influenced. Yours is the first one I'm reading and I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one scoring this book 10/10. It is exquisite. It is a true delight to read.

Anonymous said...

I've been like a little kid wondering when his Captain Midnight Decoder Ring would arrive in the mail awaiting a graciously given advanced reading copy of Under Heaven, and it can't come quick enough!

I didn't read the review so as not to be too influenced in my thinking, but having read the introductory chapter, and seeing everyone's enthusiasm, I'm really looking forward to this one.

Mike said...

Ya know, I've never read Kay. I hum and haw at his books when I see them in the bookstore.

I always seem to think they will be boring. No Epic battles it seems to me, villains, etc..

Probably way of basis. Any suggestions on where to start?? Besides buying the HC of htis one. :)

Cecrow said...

For epic battles and villains, you could try his Fionavar Tapestry or Tigana. I recommend the latter.

Anonymous said...

It is absolutely beautiful.


CJohnson said...

I read 100 pages into this the other night, I'm completely hooked.. I'm worried that I won't sleep at all tonight. This book is amazing.

Kenny Cross said...

It took me a long time to find UNDER HEAVEN (just last week to be exact) but ever since your review I've been looking for it.

This is not only one of the best books I have read in the last year, it may be one of my favorite novels I have read in the last 10, 20 years. If not my favorite definitely in my top 10.

The writing is powerful, compact, no excess. Poetic, beautiful passages along with savagery, and a clenched fist to the stomach with surprising emotional impact.

It's like reading dynastic Chinese history, wrapped in the rice paper decorations of fantasy, in a powerfully told tale.

Thank you Pat. If it wasn't for your review I most likely wouldn't have picked it up. The last Guy Gavriel Kay novel I read was Tigana, which I loved. I own A Song For Arbonne and Lions of Al'Rassan in hardcover, bought them when they first came out, but kind of lost track of Guy Gavriel Kay over the years. Of course I read the Fionavar Tapestry.

I definitely have some books to catch up on with the Kay novels I have missed. Thank you once again. This book was exactly what I needed.

MarcD said...

I'll be picking this one up immediately. Kay is always great, I've been reading him since Fionavar. To me the Saranatine Mosaic is his masterpiece, it will be interesting to me to see if Under Heaven equals or surpasses that sublime work.

...actually, after thinking about it a few moments, I can't name any author I enjoy and respect more than Kay, except for Stephen R. Donaldson.