- Audio Download
- Listening Length: 19 hours and 32 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Penguin Audio
- Audible.co.uk Release Date: 3 Jun. 2010
- Language: English
- ASIN: B00B1MCVN0
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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.
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.