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Review: Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay

When Shen Tai loses his father, he finds himself at loose ends, unable to reconcile himself to the required years of mourning which Kitai society demands.  Instead, he goes to the site of his father’s last great battle, where thousands of bodies lay unburied and ghosts cry out for peace.  Tai spends two years digging graves and laying bodies to rest.  When Tai receives a message from a former princess of Kitai, now married to a Taguran in a bid for peace, granting him two hundred and fifty Sardian horses, he realizes that he’s received an incredible gift and his life is in danger.  He discovers this in the worst way when an assassin comes for him, killing one of his closest friends; Tai must now head into the heart of the empire, facing guaranteed danger, to discover what his friend was trying to tell him and to figure out what to do with the horses.

Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favorite authors, if not at the top of the list.  I own and have loved every single one of his novels, and as such I have been anxiously awaiting my chance to read this.  I adore his brand of historical fantasy – cultures I recognize instantly, with just a bit of added magic to make them new and his own.  I finally decided I couldn’t wait any longer to read his newest release – especially when I was perfectly in the mood for a fantasy world based on the Tang dynasty in China – and I was not disappointed.

While this probably isn’t my favorite of his works (I don’t think he’ll ever match The Lions of al-Rassan with me), it was nevertheless a beautiful, engaging read that pulled at all of my heartstrings and really captivated me in a way few books manage these days.  The book is narrated mainly by Tai, with a few sections featuring his sister Li-Mei and the prostitute he loved before his father died, Spring Rain.  I found Tai’s straightforwardness and modesty in a world of political subtlety to be very endearing, while Li-Mei was a strong woman put through things I don’t think many women of the period would have been able to endure.  As for Spring Rain, I didn’t quite connect with her as much as the other two, and I think overall she was meant to have more emotional impact on me than she did.  I was a bit more in favor of another direction for Tai, one that he eventually chose, and I think that limited her influence on the story.  The secondary characters were also well done, particularly Wei Song, Tai’s Kanlin warrior.  I loved her alternating fierceness and timidity; she was overall just perfect.

The plot is a bit complex, full of court intrigue and carefully planned interactions, but I thought was done quite well.  I loved the political turmoil that Kitai was thrust into over the course of this book and its eventual consequences.  For me, everything held together really well, and had me very interested in the actual history that took place over this time.  I wondered how closely Kay stuck to known history and I’m really looking forward to reading some of the suggestions he gives in his author’s note to find out a bit more about the facts of the time.

Kay’s writing as always is gorgeous and lyrical.  I regularly wish I could write like him every time I read one of his books.  He’s truly masterful at getting across emotion and making scenes of carnage and death seem both beautiful and tragic at the same time.  This one didn’t quite have the effect that some of his other books have had in the past, but it’s impossible not to get swept away by the stories that Kay tells.

While Under Heaven doesn’t quite rank as my favorite by Kay, he is an amazingly gifted writer and this is a historical fantasy well worth reading.

I am an Amazon Associate. Nymeth sent me this book when my blogger secret santa didn’t come through. Thanks again!

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