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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kay's transcendent masterpiece
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favourite authors, has been for a long time. His early Fionavar Tapestry caught my interest: flawed, derivative of Tolkien, but nevertheless full of knowledge and understanding of European folklore, and expressed in lambent prose. His Sarantium duology disappointed slightly, but he found his rythm again in his evocations of early medieval...
Published on 15 July 2010 by Simon Brooke

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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A gift of horses
Billed as a fantasy novel set in ancient china, this is a big book and also a standalone novel. Which can be rare for the fantasy genre, which usually works in trilogies.

But this isn't really a fantasy novel at all. Despite mentions of, and occasional appearances by, ghosts and spirits and shamans and wolf creatures, all that tends to be rather oblique and...
Published on 5 April 2010 by Paul Tapner


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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kay's transcendent masterpiece, 15 July 2010
By 
Simon Brooke (Auchencairn, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Under Heaven (Hardcover)
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my favourite authors, has been for a long time. His early Fionavar Tapestry caught my interest: flawed, derivative of Tolkien, but nevertheless full of knowledge and understanding of European folklore, and expressed in lambent prose. His Sarantium duology disappointed slightly, but he found his rythm again in his evocations of early medieval Europe, the hauntingly beautiful Song for Arbonne, the rich and tragic Lions of Al Rassan, the exquisite and almost flawless Tigana. The Last Light of the Sun is possibly better than these, but did not move me personally so much; and Ysabel, which I love, is perhaps less ambitious. But nevertheless Kay is one of two writers I pre-order in hardback as soon as a book is announced. But I confess I wondered: could this writer so steeped in the history of Europe do justice to ancient China?

Oh, ye of little faith.

This novel is transcendent. It stands alongside Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose as the equal finest piece of narrative fiction I have ever read. There is so much richness, so much depth, so much knowledge, so much understanding here. So much compassion; so much subtlety. And the evocation of ancient China rings entirely true. No slightest hint or detail of scene or voice interrupts or jars the willing suspension of disbelief. The evocation of a world that sweeps from the empty grasslands of the steppe through the mountain wastes of the abandoned battlefield, over the lonely forts on the Great Wall and by way of the isolated fastness of the soldier monks to the pleasure gardens of the imperial palace is solid and firm and credible in each perfectly observed detail, in each perfectly crafted phrase.

Kay shows us in words, as Antti-Jussi Annila has in film, that Europe and China are not in fact so far apart across the top of the world; that people are, always, people; and that the core of every narrative is those people and the complex web of interaction - of love, of loyalty, of respect, of rivalry, of conflict, of hatred - between them. All that is here. All that is here, and this prose sings. It's no accident that Kay's heroes here are poets, as in the Song for Arbonne they are jongleurs. Kay loves language, and narrative; and with this book he has mastered both. This book - this text - is his masterpiece, under heaven.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the very best historical-fantasy authors at the top of his game, 5 May 2010
By 
A. Whitehead "Werthead" (Colchester, Essex United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Under Heaven (Hardcover)
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Kitai, during the Ninth Dynasty. The Emperor has given the nation many years of peace and prosperity. Far to the west, in a valley where the last great battle between Kitai and Tagur was fought, a dutiful son pays homage to his dead father by burying the bones of the fallen. His honourable task is noted by the Tagurans who give him a princely gift: two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. You give a man one Sardian horse to honour him greatly, four or five to elevate him above all others. Two hundred and fifty is an overwhelming gift, a gift that instantly elevates Shen Tai into a player in Kitan politics.

These are perilous times. The First Minister and the empire's greatest general are feuding, the Emperor is distracted by his most favoured concubine and there is tribal dissent among the Bogu people beyond the Long Wall. Shen Tai and his family are thrust into the midst of great events, and find they and their horses may determine the balance of power, and of life and death, for many.

Under Heaven is Guy Gavriel Kay's eleventh novel, and marks a return to his favoured alternate-history setting and genre after the World Fantasy Award-winning Ysabel, which was a departure from his normal work. The setting this time is 8th Century China during the Tang Dynasty, during the lead-up to the colossal An Shi Rebellion (the most devastating war in human history until World War II, if the casualty figures are to be believed), although as normal the setting is lightly fictionalised, with characters and events hewing close to the originals but not quite replicating them.

Kay's China - Kitai - is a place of scheming nobles, courtly poise and etiquette and labyrinth conspiracies, all of which are depicted impressively. As normal, Kay is less interested in war and battles than in the human characters of the story, from Shen Tai and his ambitious brother Shen Liu to First Minister Wen Zhou, the poet Sima Zian and the women of the story (the Beloved Companion Wen Jian, Tai's sister Shen Li-Mei and the Kanlin warrior Wei Song), whose roles are crucial. Kay's grasp of character is as assured as ever, and he brings these people to life to the extent where the reader finds it impossible not to care about what happens to them next. Kay's grasp of emotion is as also finely-judged as ever, with moments of genuinely raw emotional power which never overreach into mawkishness.

The pacing is also well-handled, and the plot unfolds in a gripping manner. Kay shows greater confidence here as a writer than he has in some time, and his weaving of events, conspiracies and characters into a greater whole is impressive. This is easily his most assured and well-executed book since The Lions of Al-Rassan, if not ever.

Under Heaven (*****) is a superb book from one of our best writers working at the top of his game, and will likely be judged one of the strongest books of this year, in fantasy or otherwise. It is available now in the UK and USA.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Absorbing, 15 April 2010
By 
Suzy Shipman "suzshi" (Mid Wales, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Under Heaven (Hardcover)
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I'd read the Fionavar Tapestry books many years ago so when I saw this book I recognised the name of the author as one whose books I had enjoyed before. I wasn't disappointed! As some other reviewers have pointed out - this book leans more towards historical fiction rather than fantasy, but there are sprinklings of the spirit world. It's beautifully written and I found it very absorbing. I was very much captured by the characters and the world they lived in - a world of heroes, emperors, love, war, honour and intrigue. Tai was a believable hero - I both admired him and identified with his struggles. A fascinating and enjoyable read - the kind of book that I both desparately want to read more of, yet at the same time mourn when it ends.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of his best, 25 Sep 2011
By 
JPS - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Under Heaven (Paperback)
Some commentators did not like this book, even as fans of Kay. This may be because the fiction is inspired by Tang China (618 to 907 AD) and more accuratly with the rebellion of An Lu Shan, an event that is not well known in the West. This event riped apart the Empire in the middle of the 8th century, latest 8 years, caused millions of deaths (according to certain estimates, some 70% of the 50 million population) and impoverished China for decades.

Maybe also, some didn't like the somewhat unfamiliar poetry and characters, all of which are based on historical people. As usual, however, Kay's research is flawless. Even an equivalent of the Sardian Horses existed, although the author may have significantly enhanced its importance in the novel, comprared to the historical context. These were the horses bred in Ferghana (in Central Asia), some of which were exported to Tibet - one of China's most powerful ennemies at the time (Tagur in the book) and China (Kitan).

The story telling also has many of Kay's usual ingredients. The characters, starting with the most powerful one, seem entirely unable to cope and do anything to avert the coming disaster. This sense of doom and impending catastrophy can also be found in a number of his other novels (the Lions of Al-Rassan or Song for Arbonne come to mind), together with the idea that nothing will ever be the same afterwards. Clearly, you either likes this - as I do - or you don't, in which case this book will clearly not work for you.

I wasn't really convinced with the Kanlin (a loose interpretation of the Shaolin warrior monks?) who seem to be used as bodyguards, secretaries, interpreters, diplomats and, more precisely, trusted third parties and could include both men and women. I was also a bit unconvinced when learning how easily one of them could renounce her vows, although given the circumstances, it is possible. However, these are essentially quibbles. I loved that book and read right through it. I hope you will enjoy it just as much as I did.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Evocative story beautifully written., 15 May 2010
By 
Mimi Moor - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Under Heaven (Hardcover)
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There were moments while reading this book where I felt that some great truth was about to revealed to me. I really felt that the edges of my mind were being curled back and something wonderful was waiting below... it was quite un-nerving and certainly something that has never happened to me while reading a book.

Under Heaven details an alternate 8th Century chinese history with the main Protagonist, Shen Tai, the second son of a renowned General. At the start of the novel Tai is reaching the end of the prosribed two year period of mourning. In respect to his father's memory he has undertaken a challenging endeavour - to bury the dead from a great battle in the valley of Kuala Nor. He buries the dead from both sides of the battle and due to his devotion to the work, soldiers from forts on both sides of the border bring supplies and wood freeing him up to the task of digging graves and burying bones. The ghosts of soldiers scream in the night but those that are buried fall silent. As Tai nears the end of this task he is surprised to be visited by an old friend. The friend is about to break some news to him when his silent companion, a Kanjin warrier, slaughters him. Only the intervention of the ghosts saves Tai's life. A messenger then arrives bringing news of a great gift and a great honour and Tai is thrown back into Court life. With the help of old friends and new he tries to find the way through rip-tides of intrigue and deception, murder and madness.

A beautifully written story with many twists and catches to enthrall and mystify. If you haven't read Guy Gavriel Kay's other books I can highly recommend the Fionavar Trilogy - one of my favourite fantasy series.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Beautifully written fantasy, 10 Dec 2010
This review is from: Under Heaven (Hardcover)
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For 2 years Shen Tai has honoured the memory of his dead feather by burying the bones of those who fell at Kuala Nor (a battle won by his father). Word of his deeds has spread around Kitan and Tanguran people and as a reward, the Kitan wife of the Tanguran emperor gifts him with 250 Sardian horses - the most prized horses in the world.

The gift is one that could make Shen Tai's fortune or seal his own death warrant because during his absence, the politics of the Kitan empire have become unstable and civil war is threatened. As Shen Tai journeys to the Ta-Ming Palace to inform the emperor of his good fortune, he discovers that he must also navigate a political minefield where the stakes include not only his life but also the lives of those he cares about.

Kay draws on 8th century Chinese history for this beautifully written epic fantasy, which incorporates court intrigue, sibling rivalry and warring nations.

Shen Tai is an interesting character. He's been in seclusion for 2 years, having left his exams for an official position in the imperial court, and his only real company has been the ghosts of the dead. The Kitan princess's gift changes his world in every conceivable way - giving him the possibility of a position beyond that of a court official and throwing him into the heart of a complicated court battle that his absence makes him unprepared for. The way he re-familiarises himself with the political situation allows for his own growth while introducing the reader to the complicated world Kay has created.

Yet beautifully written though the book is, there are instances where it feels over-written - Kay including scenes from the point of view of characters who play no real role in the proceedings and whose perspective adds little. Also, in contrast to the slow build up of the first two thirds of the novel which set up characters and situation, the final third is rushed and superficial with the pay off coming in a series of scenes with twists that are a little too obvious.

For all this though it is an absorbing read and Kay has a wonderful eye for detail and character, particularly the portrayal of loss and compromise. Having not previously read Kay's work, I'm now off in search of his back catalogue.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, 13 April 2010
By 
Jeff "roadrunner" (uk) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Under Heaven (Hardcover)
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For some reason, I'd never read Kay's work before so this book came as a revelation to me. It's a superb, stunning read written with the panache of a true writer. Lyrical in places, with some tremendous short sentences to end chapters. He also - a small point perhaps - uses brackets to great effect. I like the way he doesn't dismiss or forget some very minor characters; towards the end you learn that someone has been rewarded for something that happened long before, after you'd more or less forgotten about them. There's something touching about that. I liked the character of the poet Sima Zian very much!! The beginning of the novel is arguably the best part; I admit to having got a bit lost later on in some of the political infighting in the Imperial Palace. And yes, there's something very satisfying about the end which makes a statement about man and his puny wars which kind of reflects the beginning. In between, it's a jolly good story. Recommended!!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and Evocative, 22 Aug 2011
By 
Mr. A. Garlick (South Yorkshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Under Heaven (Hardcover)
Others have said it much better than I, but I love this book. Beautiful, evocative and one of the most accomplished and inspiring books I have ever read.

Read it and it will brighten your life.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars `You could say that there was never a clear beginning to anything in life,..', 9 Oct 2010
By 
Jennifer Cameron-Smith "Expect the Unexpected" (ACT, Australia) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Under Heaven (Hardcover)
'.. unless it was the moment you drew your first breath in the world.'

This novel is set in the fictional world of Kitai, which is based on China's Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). The novel opens with Shen Tai, the second son of a famous Kitan general, observing his two year mourning period for his father by burying the dead of both armies at Kuala Nor, the site of his father's greatest battle. His efforts - to bury the bones of one hundred thousand soldiers from both the Kitan and Taguran armies - are appreciated by both sides. Both sides support his efforts by replenishing his supplies. One day, towards the end of his two years, the Tagurans deliver a letter. This letter disrupts his life: he has been presented with 250 Sardian horses as a gift in recognition of his courage and piety. Five of these highly prized horses would be a gift for an Emperor, 250 is a dangerous, life-changing gift.

Shen Tai must leave Kuala Nor for the imperial court: once knowledge of this gift is public, his life will be in danger. Once Shen Tai leaves Kuala Nor, he comes into contact with Kanlin warriors, with bureaucrats and courtesans and ultimately with the Kitan court. His journey is not straightforward: there are those who seek to kill him as his gift threatens the balance of power in an empire that is now faltering.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and while I recognised many of the Chinese cultural and historical influences on the world of Kitai, it was the well developed characters that made the story so enjoyable. Shen Tai may be the central character, and his journey is the one we are most focussed on. But it is not the only journey taking place, and the secondary characters and journeys are an important part of the world Guy Gavriel Kay has created.

`Sometimes the one life we are allowed is enough.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A hell of a read, 13 Jun 2010
By 
Chinatown Blue "cthulhoid" (S-O-T, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Under Heaven (Hardcover)
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It took me a while to review this book, simply because this is not the kind of thing you can skim through. It is too complex, too deep, to hurry through. But it is truly worth taking time to read it and think about it, because this is more than just an epic historical adventure laced with magic (which it is). Under Heaven is also intricately plotted, without ever seeming to be unnecessarily so. It takes you on a glorious journey through ancient Kitai, marvellously detailed and evocative to the point where you can almost smell the perfume of the court ladies. Along the way it delves into philosophy, politics and human relationships with the understanding and skill of a genuinely great writer. It is a stand-alone tale, which ends with no clumsy trailers for future parts of a saga, yet leaves you wanting to have more of both characters and setting. Not a lightweight read, but in a world of throwaway stories, this is a keeper.
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Under Heaven
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (Paperback - 3 Feb 2011)
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