Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay is the third book by this author that I’ve read so far, and as always, Kay delivers.
Shen Tai has been labouring for two years to lay at rest the bones of the thousands of Kitan and Taguran warriors that lie naked at Kuala Nor, in honour of his late father. He labours day after day, and listens to the angry and sad voices of the ghosts of the slain at night. Soldiers from both sides of the conflict, and both fortresses on either side, honour his hard work, and help by providing provisions and whatever he might need. The official mourning period is almost over, but Shen Tai has not yet thought of what he would do when it is. Then a princess of Kitan, now one of the Tarugan leader’s wives, gifts him with 250 Sardian horses. A most dangerous gift that causes Tai’s world to change forever.
Even though I had only read Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan before I picked up Under Heaven, I knew I would like this novel. Guy Gavriel Kay hasn’t disappointed me yet as an author, and I wasn’t expecting him to. Couple that with the fact that this novel is set in an imaginary ancient China, and my expectations go through the roof. He met them, and them blew past them.
I loved this novel. I couldn’t put it down. Kay is a such an amazing writer; I can’t put into words how much his books move me, how they make me experience so much emotions, and wow me with his vivid and beautiful writing. His characters, one and all, were so believable for that time period, and just as regular human beings too. There were absolutely no characters in his book that felt flat, or fake. I could understand everyone’s motives, even though I might not agree with them. Shen Tai is a great protagonist, because not only do we get to see him being honourable from page one – and thus develop an immediate liking to him – he’s also been away from Kitai and the capital for 2 years. So much has changed, and he feels like a fish out of water a lot of the times, which means the readers learns alongside him.
His relationships, with his family, his friends, those sent to protect him, his love, his enemy and those he encounters along the way feel real. They’re complicated, and not all of them will be preserved in the end. But they’re real. We believe it when he’s angry at people, or when he’s saddened by their actions, or their deaths. We see him struggle with doing the right thing, suppressing anger, conforming to the ways of the court to keep himself and the people around him safe.
The women in this novel too, it has to be said, feel real. It’s not something any author can do. Guy Gavriel Kay knows exactly how to make relatable characters, but also knows how women could (or couldn’t) accrue power – soft and hard power – in the days of that time period. Yes, there’s fantastical elements to this novel as well, but it’s as much historical fiction, maybe even more. All the women in this novel had their own kind of strength. Wei Song as a skilled Kanlin tasked to protect him. Spring Rain and Wen Jian as favoured concubines. Shen Li-Mei as the only daughter of the Shen family, given away by her oldest brother to marry a savage.
There were no boring parts to this novel, no moments my focus faltered. Kay took me by the hand from the first page and never let go. I can’t wait to read more from him.