Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I am looking forward to reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, A Brightness Long Ago, which will be published in May, but before starting that one I wanted to finally read a different book by Kay which has been on my shelf unread for a few years now. That book is Under Heaven, the first of two novels (the second is River of Stars) inspired by two different Chinese dynasties, Tang and Song.

Kay writes a type of historical fantasy where the emphasis is usually more on the historical than the fantasy. With most of his novels, I at least have a little bit of familiarity with the period on which his setting is based (Renaissance Italy, medieval Spain, the Vikings etc) but the setting of Under Heaven – a fictionalised Tang China – is one I’ve never read about before and of which I have absolutely no knowledge. That made this particular book a slightly more challenging read for me than the others I’ve read by Kay, but it has also left me wanting to know more about the real history of China during this period.

In the book, China is referred to as Kitai, with Tagur (Tibet) to the west. The novel opens with Shen Tai travelling to the battle site of Kuala Nor, where his father, an army general, once led the Kitan to victory against the enemy Taguran. Now his father is dead and Tai plans to spend the two year mourning period laying to rest the bones of the forty thousand dead, both Kitan and Taguran. It seems an impossible task, but Tai is determined to try anyway:

There were too many. It was beyond hope to ever finish this: it was a task for gods descending from the nine heavens, not for one man. But if you couldn’t do everything, did that mean you did nothing?

To acknowledge his efforts, the Empress of Tagur, once a Kitan princess, promises him two hundred and fifty magnificent Sardian horses as a reward – but Tai is not as delighted as you might expect him to be at receiving such a lavish gift. As he knows, ‘You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.’ Imagine the danger a man could be in who possesses not just four or five but two hundred and fifty of these legendary animals! This is a life-changing moment for Tai and on his return journey to the imperial capital of Xinan he finds that he has become the centre of attention, with various factions at court all vying to take possession of the horses for themselves. These include An Li, a powerful military leader; Wen Zhou, the Prime Minister; and Wen Jian, the ‘Precious Consort’ of the elderly Emperor Taizu.

In a parallel storyline, Tai’s sister Li-Mei is being sent north beyond the Long Wall to Bogü (possibly Mongolia) where she is to marry the son of the Bogü leader. Marriage to a barbarian is not what Li-Mei had in mind for herself, but a chance to escape this fate comes when she is rescued by the mysterious Meshag, who takes her across the steppes on a journey as eventful and dangerous as Tai’s.

Kay’s female characters are always strong and interesting and I enjoyed following Li-Mei’s story as much as Tai’s. I’ve already mentioned Wen Jian, the emperor’s consort, who is a match for any of the men when it comes to manoeuvring her way through court politics, but my favourite of the women in the novel is Wei Song, the Kanlin warrior who is sent to protect Tai and takes her duties very seriously, even if it means putting her own life at risk. Of the male characters, apart from Tai himself, I particularly liked Bytsan sri Nespo, his Taguran friend who brings him the message about the Sardian horses, and Sima Zian, the famous poet who accompanies him to Xinan and becomes one of the few men he can trust.

Poetry runs through the novel, as does superstition, myth, legend and political intrigue – but there are only one or two small elements that you could really describe as fantasy (mainly at the beginning, with the ghosts of Kuala Nor – ‘outside in all seasons, moonlit nights and dark, as soon as the sun went down’). Most of the other Guy Gavriel Kay novels I’ve read are set in a world with one white moon and one blue, but the world of Under Heaven has only one (he makes a point of telling us that the poet Sima Zian has often dreamed of having another moon to write about). I’m curious to know why he decided to set this one in a different world to the others, especially as we were back to the two moons again in his most recent book, Children of Earth and Sky.

I will have to find out more about the Tang Dynasty and the An Shi Rebellion, but I’m also looking forward to reading River of Stars which is set four hundred years later, during the Song Dynasty. First, though, on to A Brightness Long Ago!

12 thoughts on “Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. whatmeread says:

    I read one of Kay’s first trilogies a while back, and it seemed juvenile, but his more recent books are more interesting, a lot more mature, naturally. I can never figure out whether I want to spend time reading them, however. Fantasy is not my thing even though his are based on history.

  2. Melita Kennedy says:

    I liked Under Heaven a lot, but had the same issue that I have with several of his books. Most of the female characters are in love with him. At least for this one it made better sense than say, Crispin. I liked River of Stars even better than Under Heaven.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t really have a problem with that in this book, but I do understand what you mean. I’m pleased to hear you thought River of Stars was even better than Under Heaven. I’m looking forward to reading it, after I read A Brightness Long Ago.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    What an excellent book to further your knowledge of early China! I am going to put this and the next book on my lists.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, even though the names of the places and people have been changed, I still felt that I was learning a lot about the real history behind the story. I’m looking forward to reading the second book.

    • Helen says:

      Reading other book blogs can be very dangerous for the tbr! I’m glad you think this one sounds tempting – I love Guy Gavriel Kay’s books.

  4. buriedinprint says:

    I’m planning to reread and read my way through his books beginning this summer with the Fionavar Tapestry. His work has consistently thrilled me and I’m very excited about the May release (and catching up with the volumes I’ve missed along the way). This is one I’ve heard him interviewed about and have attended readings to celebrate its release (he lives locally) and everything about it sounds so good. What an amazing storyteller.

    • Helen says:

      That sounds like a great project – I’d be interested to read your thoughts on his books as you work through them, if you choose to blog about them. I haven’t read the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy yet, but I’m looking forward to it as it sounds quite different from the other books of his that I’ve read so far.

      • buriedinprint says:

        My plan is to reread the three books through July/Aug/Sept if that appeals to you. (Assuming that life flows along as expected.) And I do hope to write them up, although I recall that the last time I reread the first Fionavar book, I felt like i either had to write only a paragraph or an entire book about it – so I said nothing!

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