Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay: Book Review

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Cover of Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

3 Stars

Shen Tai’s father, the great Kitan general Shen Gao, died haunted by an epic battle he led against the neighboring country of Tagura. He won the battle but in his old age he came to realize that the cost was too high. 40,000 casualties lie unburied in the beautiful meadow at Kuala Nor. Tai decides to spend his two and a half years of mourning burying those dead to honor his father’s memory. Word of his epic task spreads throughout both countries until a Kitan princess married to the Taguran king hears of it. She honors him by gifting him 250 Sardian horses. “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 finds himself thrust back into the quick-moving world of court intrigue as he tries to do the right thing for his country, his family, and himself, while also trying to stay alive.

My expectations for this were too high. I tried to temper them, knowing that I might be disappointed, but c’mon. It’s Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s China. How could it be anything other than a 6++++ star book?

Yeah. They were too high.

I just kept waiting for the story to start. And it kept not starting. And then it was over. So I missed something somewhere. GGKay isn’t exactly about the action, he’s definitely more about the characters. But there’s usually some action going on somewhere. Not here. Tai just sort of went along, reacting to other people’s plans for him and his horses, unable to gain much of an initiative himself. It’s not his fault; he’s dealing with the imperial court of what amounts to ancient China, and there’s not much that any individual could have done in his shoes. I’m not very politically minded and the word strategy is way beyond my straightforward self, so all of that just didn’t do much for me.

While I’m on what I didn’t like let me mention the clumsy foreshadowing. About 2/3 of the way through, the story flashes way forward to historians looking back at what we’re reading. The foreshadowing starts and it gets so clunky. “This was, in fact, the almost universally accepted opinion among historians of what should have happened.” And then we’re told what happened instead.  You are a better writer than that, GGKay. Don’t resort to cheap tricks to keep me reading. Please. It happens randomly through the rest of the book. Flash forward to historians looking back and how they agree that this should have happened but something else happened instead. I found it maddening.

I did like the storyline with Tai’s sister. I don’t want to say much about it and give anything away, but I think I liked her a little more than Tai, and I loved her companion. He was well on his way to breaking my heart when he left the story. I don’t think GGKay usually revisits a world when he leaves it, but I’m hoping he makes an exception and comes back to this world to give us more of that story.

I finally kind of “got” what this was about when I read this toward the end of the book: “You did what you could to shape your own peace, before you crossed over to the night and left the world behind, as all men did, to be forgotten or remembered, as time or love allowed.” Maybe Tai’s hands were tied, but the paths he followed among his limited choices spoke volumes about his character. Another theme that I actually picked up on my own pretty early in the story was that of the way your actions cause ripples of cause-and-effect in unpredictable places. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, but Tai’s basic goodness leaves people willing to help him in unexpected places. These things are two ideas I actually like, so that’s what saved the book for me.

I’m left wondering if this was just a bad time for me to read this particular book. I’ve seen far more “Holy cow, best book of the year” reviews than “meh” reviews like mine. If you love character-driven fantasy (or, I honestly think, historical fiction) and you aren’t expecting epic battles but rather smaller, more internal struggles, you will probably love this. It’s still Guy Gavriel Kay and he at “meh” is still better than most other fantasy authors at their best.

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1 Comment

  1. I feel kind of devastated when I have high expectation for a book and then I'm disappointed. But I like your review, it's great, well balanced and honest. I like that. Thanks for sharing!

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