Under Heaven


“As to the meaning to be attached to such a conjunction, a pattern discovered embedded in the tale…

Who can number, under the heavens, the jewel-bright observations to be extracted from moments such as these? Who will dare say he knows with certainty which single gem is to be held up to whatever light there is for us, in our journeying, and proclaimed as true?”

This is the third book by Guy Gavriel Kay that I’ve read (Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan are the previous two) and each book just seems to surpass the one I’ve read before. I loved my first introduction to his work, with Tigana. But Lions attracted me more with its glorious battle scenes and setting. Then along comes Under Heaven which simply blows me away with its great characters and storyline.

Shen Tai, second son of the late General Shen Gao, has been in the far reaches of Kuala Nor, the fabled battleground littered with bones. He is in his two-year mourning period for his father and has been burying the bones of these long dead soldiers, both friend and foe. The ghosts haunting his every night. The screams and cries of the sad and angry dead.

As his mourning period comes to an end his old friend arrives to visit and tell him some important news from home. But before he is able to, his bodyguard kills him and tries to kill Tai (he kills her instead – or rather the ghosts of Kuala Nor do). On that very day, he is presented with a gift (for his deed has impressed even royalty) that will change his fate – 250 fabled Sardian horses. Horses prized for their rarity, speed and strength. Not even the Kitai Emperor has one. And which any man, any army would kill for.


Tang Dynasty-era pottery (via China Pottery Online)

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.

So Tai finds himself with more than one dilemma. To find out just who wants him killed (even before the news of the Sardian horses), what the important news from home is, and what exactly to do with his horses (and as a matter of fact, ensuring his own safety as he journeys home). It is a tricky situation for anyone to be in. And made even more impossible by court intrigue and the mystical magic of the land (she-foxes, shamans, ghosts).

We also meet some other interesting characters like Tai’s sister Li-Mei who has been forced beyond the Long Wall to become the bride of the leader of the Bogü clan. And the beautiful Wen Jian, the Emperor’s favoured concubine, who, although young, is incredibly perceptive and manages to manipulate and shape the fates and fortunes of Tai and others, all while maintaining that poised guileless image, perfect for being underestimated by others.

One thing I have appreciated with each book of Kay’s that I’ve read, is his writing of strong female characters. Wei Song is both stealthy and witty (and finds herself having a soft spot for Tai). After all, at the Kalin sanctuary on Stone Drum Mountain, “you were taught how to disarm a person with words, confuse or placate them. It wasn’t all blades and bows and spinning leaps that ended with a kick to the chest or head and, often as not, a death.”

In an interview with SF Channel, Kay said:

“As for the female psyche, I used to be flattered when people said I did convincing female characters, but lately I confess it bemuses me. The implied idea underlying the comment is that it is startling that a man can do plausible women characters. If you push this just a bit, you have to ask how any woman could do a convincing man, how any young writer could do a geriatric, how any of us could do someone not…ourselves. Creating characters is, in a large way, an act of imaginative empathy, and I’m resistant to the idea that there are absolute borders to that. In the end, I’d say that we’re really talking about good or bad writing, rather than male and female, or young and old.”

Kay’s Kitai, which was inspired by Tang Dynasty China, is a sumptuous, brilliant read. Full of politicking and covert dealings. But it’s also written with an eye for the splendour of courtly life and the vivid details of this familiar yet unfamiliar land. This is not just a story of Shen Tai, it was a story of those connected with him and how all these events unfold and work in patterns and pieces. It was a world I didn’t want to leave.

In a letter published in advance reading copies of Under Heaven, Kay wrote:

“I want to keep readers turning pages until two in the morning or better (or worse!). So consider this: if I base a book on a slightly altered past the reader who knows what happened in that time and place does not know with any certainty what will happen in my story. In Under Heaven I’ve served notice with the shift to an imagined Kitai from real China that I reserve the right to change, or telescope events.”


Guy Gavriel Kay’s bibliography
The Fionavar Tapestry in three parts:
The Summer Tree (1984)
The Wandering Fire (1986)
The Darkest Road (1986)

Tigana (1990)
A Song for Arbonne (1992)
The Lions of Al-Rassan, (1995)

The Sarantine Mosaic,  in two parts:
Sailing to Sarantium (1998)
Lord of Emperors (2000)

Beyond This Dark House (2003)
The Last Light of the Sun (2004)
Ysabel (2007)
Under Heaven (April 27, 2010)
River of Stars (expected 2013)


I read Under Heaven for the What’s in a name challenge


  1. Fantastic book. I’ve recommended it to countless people at this point. I hooked a co-worker on Kay by loaning the book to her. I’ve introduced my brother and sister-in-law to this via Xmas present. Big fan!


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