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on 19 October 2013
I'm a big fan of GGK and have read almost all his alternate-history novels. i found this one rather less involving than its predecessor (River of Stars). It's certainly well written as always, but to my mind he starts a lot of hares which don't really go anywhere.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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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VINE VOICEon 15 July 2010
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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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 25 September 2011
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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VINE VOICEon 15 May 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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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VINE VOICEon 17 June 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I enjoyed this book, Guy Gavriel Kay has written a good book, the lands of the Kitai, the people, traditions and background are all very well rounded and a depth of detail that is often lacking is very welcome here. The main characters of the piece are again very well conceived and delivered. I did enjoy this book and would recommend that anyone in need of a good fantasy read picks it up for a good read. My only personal criticism is that the book is just a little gentle for my tastes, if I can compare it to a similarly flavoured book, Daughter of Empire, the construction of the story, the plot and intrigue are all very believeable in both books but Daughter is just a little more to my taste, if that makes my review any clearer.
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VINE VOICEon 10 December 2010
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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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on 5 May 2016
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay is a book that I have picked up and put back down in bookshops more time than I can count. I love the idea of Chinese based fantasy and the premise of the book promised adventure and intrigue that seemed to fit perfectly for the setting. Still, I seemed to always find something I wanted to read more and it wasn’t until recently that I remembered to give it a go.

I’ve heard plenty of good things about Kay and heard him referred to as a ‘modern classic’ writer and I must admit, expected a grand tale full of beautiful landscapes and a rich world ready to swallow the reader whole. What I found in Under Heaven, however, couldn’t have been further removed from that.

The story starts with Shen Tai, son of the late General Lao finishing his two year mourning period which he decided to spend burying the dead at an old battlefield. There is a slowness to the start that I actually found appealing to a certain degree: Shen is alone and Kay gets that feeling across very efficiently through the inner monologue of the character who is looking back on all he has done and all he will going back to. Whilst still there, Shen is given a gift: 250 Sardian horses. That gift is beyond anything any man, even the Emperor, could have even dreamt of receiving. It’s also a present that would surely cost him his life quickly if not for the one condition that he must receive the horses in person.

Within the same day, an old friend of his arrives at his cabin, having traveled a very long way to deliver him news. But before Shen can find out what his friend wanted to tell him, he is assassinated and Shen himself is lucky to survive the assassin sent to take his life. But how could the hand behind the assassin have known about the horses? Or does this have to do with something else entirely?

From the get go, Under Heaven promises intrigue and adventure and it is painfully disappointing that it does not deliver. The greatest part of the book is taken by Shen Tai’s return to the capital, but little happens on the way. Insist we get Shen’s repetitive monologue and thoughts about his brother, the news he has been given about his sister, and the man who has stolen from him the girl he was in love with. And when we, finally, reach the capital, the expected intrigue isn’t there. Shen is nothing more than a pawn in the hands of the only person who seems to know what they’re doing whilst everybody else blunders around. When it has been made a point that it is hard to be in service of the emperor, it is surprising to find that of the people who surround him, the only one who seems capable of intrigue, calculating manoeuvres, and of generally playing the game of politics well is his concubine. The prime minister is ruled by his fears, whereas Shen’s brother only seems to be interested in making his family prosper.

It was disappointing how all the characters at court were so obviously transparent with an obvious ‘good’ and ‘bad’ divide the line in between Kay never really bothers to blur. Most of the characters seemed very one dimensional, especially surrounding Shen and it was very hard to actually get attached or care what happened to anyone. Shen’s sister, Li Mei, has a far more interesting POV: made an imperial princess, she is shipped off to marry a barbarian in the name of peace only to be saved by a half man half creature that her brother spared the life of years before.

Her relationship with Meshag is actually one of the most interesting one of the book as it moves from hate and fear, to respect, to a strange friendship and perhaps the first hints of what could have been a romantic attachment. Li Mei seemed a far more complex person than her brothers, strong in ways I don’t see often in female characters, because she was strong within the role the society gave her without stepping outside of it. Much like the imperial consort, Li Mei knows that she can have strength and do more than it seems from within her position.

But overall not a great deal happened for about three quarters of the book until suddenly everything came to a head and exploded in every direction: but that this point, as a reader, I didn’t feel really connected to any of the characters, and the way Kay handled the start of the rebellion made the book feel more like a history book than a novel. And that’s a truth throughout the book: Kay info dumps at all too regular intervals within the story, swapping to random POVs for such occasions before abandoning the insignificant characters to never be seen again. It is obvious he wanted to bring his fantasy China to life, but instead long paragraphs of needless and irrelevant information bore at several points and the world itself remain flat and devoid of life.

Characters wear ‘silk’ or ‘robes’ and nothing is ever described bar the material itself. It’s almost as though he was afraid to invest in the names of the garments his characters are wearing, calling them by their proper names, and instead deciding to go for the vague descriptions of material and colour over shapes. The world feels clad in much of the same vagueness despite the lengthy descriptions of the places and customs.

But at least Kay nailed the ending, and the epilogue made for a very satisfying end to the story. It’s unfortunate to say but it seems that he remembered how to do characterisation in the last few chapters, bringing to life effortlessly a relationship hardly worked on throughout the rest of the book and, more importantly, making me feel happy for the involved characters. An echo of what the beginning promised, the end is what pulled this book from a two stars to a three stars, and although the book isn’t something I would exactly recommend, neither would I tell people not to bother, as long as they were aware of what kind of book this is!
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VINE VOICEon 21 May 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This book is, much like all of Kay's work, written with an amazing eye for beautiful, unselfconscious prose. The language flows wonderfully, and makes the text, almost regardless of the associated content, a pleasure to read. There's a very liquid quality to the words, which seem to flow across the page, without too many bitingly short sentences, or the overuse of over-elaborate vocabulary.

Alongside this mastery of form, Kay provides a great deal of substance, in a book which is large enough to hold rather a lot of it. The setting is clearly inspired by an early China, but I wouldn't call it an `alternate'; the cultural `feel' is similar, but the geography and cast of characters don't attach to any known period.

However, the culture that Kay has created is extremely well done, thoroughly detailed, believable and pervasive. Small cultural mores are touched on, alongside larger cultural issues, with clashes between characters highlighting and emphasising the world around them.
If the broad strokes of the created world are convincing, each of the individual characters is equally so. Kay gives us his trademark refusal to dismiss any character, with incidentals being given a character sketch which might serve as a biography in other books. Kay seems to have a strand in his work emphasising that characters with small parts in this story can have large impacts, and this book is no exception. The `main' characters are stunningly detailed and believable, each taking the reader on their own journey; each plot action comes with a solid motivation. Even the characters we might be persuaded to regard as `villains' elsewhere seem entirely human. The characters are all flawed, difficult, and human - though we focus on some more than others, and sympathise with some more than others, there is no strong `good' or `bad' subtext - simply people, operating somewhere in between. As characters, each is strongly realised, and a pleasure to read.

The events of the plot itself seem to spring organically from the actions of the characters - there isn't a real overarching `quest' or story arc. Rather, the story feels a bit like an avalanche - a small trigger event leading to endless personal ripples for each character, ending in crashes of of consequences (and there are consequences).
I've been trying to write the above review for a month, and re-read the text in that time; simply put, this is beautifully written, densely, cleverly plotted fantasy, in a unique and believable setting. It's extremely enjoyable, and I've been suggesting it to everyone I know - and I'm extending that suggestion here.

In short: This book is brilliant, and I can't recommend it enough.
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VINE VOICEon 15 April 2010
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
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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