Under Heaven

Under HeavenIt Begins Simply Shen Tai, Son Of An Illustrious General Serving The Emperor Of Kitai, Has Spent Two Years Honoring The Memory Of His Late Father By Burying The Bones Of The Dead From Both Armies At The Site Of One Of His Father S Last Great Battles In Recognition Of His Labors And His Filial Piety, An Unlikely Source Has Sent Him A Dangerous Gift Sardian HorsesYou Give A Man One Of The Famed Sardian Horses To Reward Him Greatly You Give Him Four Or Five To Exalt Him Above His Fellows, Propel Him Towards Rank, And Earn Him Jealousy, Possibly Mortal Jealousy Two Hundred And Fifty Is An Unthinkable Gift, A Gift To Overwhelm An EmperorWisely, The Gift Comes With The Stipulation That Tai Must Claim The Horses In Person Otherwise He Would Probably Be Dead Already ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.Guy Gavriel Kay s latest historical fantasy, Under Heaven, is gorgeous If you re already a fan of GGK, you know exactly what kind of delight you re in for Under Heaven is every bit as wonderful as Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Last Light of the Sun Every bit.Under Heaven takes place in Kitai an alternate Tang Dynasty but not so alternate that you won t recognize the names of many of the characters if you read just a brief history of the Tang Dynasty The civilization and culture is experiencing a golden age and family honor is one of the highest ideals Shen Tai, in order to honor his dead father, has spent two solitary years burying the bones and silencing the ghosts of thousands of men who died in a battle between Kitai and neighboring Tagur Just as his mourning period is about to end, three strange things happen almost simultaneously a friend shows up with urgent news from the capital city Xinan, an assassin is sent to kill Shen Tai, and the princess of Tagur gives Shen Tai 250 Sardian horses an incomprehensibly valuable gift that instantly catapults him to the highest ranks of Xinan society Now Shen Tai must journey back to Xinan, he s got assassins on his tail, he doesn t know who he can trust, and he has no idea that war is brewing and his return may be the catalyst.I ve already said that Under Heaven is just as gorgeous as Kay s previous historical fantasies It s well researched, carefully constructed, tightly plotted, and beautifully written The mingling of the real and the magical is delicate there are no wizards or wands, but just the acknowledgment of the existence of the supernatural and the weird Most impressively, GGK s work is always full of poetry, passion, and life His characters, those who play major roles and minor ones, feel like real people and, whether we like them or not, we come to understand their histories, motivations, frustrations, and desires We smile when they laugh, our hearts race when they re afraid, and we cry when they mourn.Another feature that sets Kay s historical fantasies apart from others is his ability to completely immerse us in a real culture without telling us that he s doing so Some historical writers feel the need to drop names, exposit, and lecture In contrast, Guy Gavriel Kay brings a historical period to life without making us feel like we re reading a textbook or that we re required to admire his research and knowledge Since we spend most of our time in Mr Kay s characters heads, I also appreciate that these characters are all fictional Mr Kay explains why he does it this way in the introduction and I completely agree with his philosophy.I read Penguin Audio s version of Under Heaven, narrated by Simon Vance For years Mr Vance has been one of my favorite narrators, and he s wonderful here, as usual If you re an audiobook reader, you ll definitely want to try this version read by the incomparable Mr Vance Regardless, you don t want to miss Under Heaven it may be the best fantasy novel of 2010. Sometimes, words fail me when I need them most Oftentimes, it s because a book is so bad that I don t even know where to begin listing all the problems In this case, in the case of my very favorite books, the right words just escape me because there s just nothing I can say Because my simple, stupid words are meaningless when it comes to describing the pure, untarnished brilliance of this book I am simply humbled It s like thanking the one of the great living people on earth, someone one truly admires, like the Dalai Lama Is there anything one can say that doesn t come off sounding trite I admire everything you ve done Really Is there anything one can say that doesn t sound like a vast understatement, that doesn t make a person wince as they hear the clash of such stupid little words in the presence of such greatness It is cruel how words often fail us at the most crucial moments.There are words, then there are words There is a difference between slapping words together in order to create a coherent sentence versus weaving words together in a composition of unparalleled artistry A well woven sentence speaks to the heart, it sings to the spirit Words can bring forth feelings of outraged anger Words can sooth a restless mind Words can be strung together in a simple sentence that makes no relevance in the context of the book, yet is so beautiful in its simplicity Words can bring that familiar sting of tears to your eyes as you read, and reread, and reread, a passage that is written with such simple poignancy.There are books with plots that hold your attention span from the first word to the last, filled with action, intrigue, suspense This is not one of these books The words in this book are to be savored, because it is poetry in prose You will find no pretentious writing here The prose is sparse, simple, direct, no dictionary required But that s the power of words, the ability to take a simple vocabulary which a grade schooler can read and assemble it in such a way that the wise can understand Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of prose.In theory, this book shouldn t have appealed to me at all I am a creature of minimal attention span My mind, my eye constantly seeks novelty I multitask every waking moment Yet this book is loved, and has been beloved by me since I first read it, years ago This book is not slow in its pace, but it is interspersed with reflections, narratives, observations regarding the deeper meanings underneath.It is a high fantasy that feels like a historical It is the story of a weary soldier who abates his guilt, his ghosts, both real and imagined, by burying the bones of soldiers left where they fell, on a long forgotten battleground In return for this unwarranted act of kindness, he is awarded 250 prized horses 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.The Princess Cheng wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission, two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses. What follows is Shen Tai s journey, interwoven with others whose fate is destined to weave with his own In essence, the Princess has awarded Shen Tai with an honor so great that it might send him to his death Royalty is like that They never consider the consequences of their grand actions.We follow Shen Tai as he travels home The dead are dead, not forgotten, and always restless We see the politics between courts in play We meet a Kailin assassin, honor bound to protect Shen Tai with her life We see the roots of a revolution take place There is death There is betrayal There is heartbreak There is sibling rivalry and loyalty to the blood There is a deep friendship and understanding between two men who should have been enemies We see women live their lives behind a gilded cage, seemingly powerless, relying only on their beauty, subterfuge, and wit for them, few men are to be trusted There are limits to what a woman in her position can know, however intelligent and committed she might be There are too many constraints on someone confined to the women s quarters of a compound or a curtained sedan chair, relying for information on infatuated servants.There have always been such limits It is the way of things, and not all men are foolish, though it might seem otherwise at times. We witness their fates, their separate lives as they intersect, through the simple act of an unparalleled gift A gift that might destroy a nation.In my life, I have been a disinterested Buddhist at best, and an angry atheist at worst I ve never believed in the concept of a soul This book makes me feel like there s to me than just the physical if I don t have a soul, how can something within me feel so much peace Branching paths The turning of days and seasons and years Life offered you love sometimes, sorrow often If you were very fortunate, true friendship Sometimes war came.You did what you could to shape your own peace, before you crossed over to the night and left the world behind, as all men did, to be forgotten or remembered, as time or love allowed. Dear Goodreads friends I may have deceived with my initial status updates on this book, please to accept my profound regrets and the below revised retraction if you don t mind some spoilersWith apologies,Kelly So, you guys saw Clerks, right Actually, I think it might ve been Clerks II, but anyway there s one part where some characters pose a very important nerd battle Star Wars trilogy vs LOTR trilogy The major points are as per usual, Darth Vader and lightsabers, BOOM EXPLODING PLANET, etc vs , as the Clerks gentlemen put it three movies about walking LOTR nerds usually fire back with something about myths, legends, deeper meaning, invented a whole language you heathen peasants For a definitive opinion on this important subject, please see Dr Oxford Now, you guys, I ve watched Fellowship of the Ring an unhealthy amount of times, you know I love me some 1000 pages of Victorian nonsense about nothing, and The Music of Repressed Piano is the rhythm of my heart, but right after finishing Under Heaven, I m definitely in sympathy with my Star Wars nerds.Under Heaven is a trilogy within a very large stand alone epic First book Awesome Second book NO Third book Ultimately fails due to the flaws in set up of the second book, but could have been better Also, A.S Byatt should sue I ll explain.Act I He had me from his ghostly cries at night I adored this set up Kay places us by a lake in northern China ahem, Kitai , near the border with the powerful Taguran empire A huge battle took place there twenty years ago, and as a result the bones of a hundred thousand soldiers lie unburied, their ghosts grieving and haunting the night Shen Tai, the second son of the man who won the battle here for Kitai, has returned to grieve for his dead father by burying as many men as he can here from both sides, for the duration of the formal two and a half year mourning period I ve come to expect rapture from Kay I did not get it here, but I did get a wonderfully contemplative, quiet opening that seemed to speak of a mature, measured writer His contrast of poetic lyrics with living images was quietly lovely He did an excellent job depicting his main character as a man on the cusp of life, of choosing a path, and all the problems that go with that he did a particularly excellent job of evoking that sensation of closing doors, of Sylvia Plath s dropping figs I adored the echoes of the dead and real life bouncing off each other as Shen tries to find his balance yes, there is a bit of basic yin yang philosophy here in life He also sets up what turned out to be my favorite parts of the book Interludes which happen throughout the book in which a third person omniscient voice from the future looks back on the story being told lyrically expounds upon the difference between experienced events and recorded history the idea that historical truth lies somewhere in between prejudice, perspective, imperfect records, and the narrative being told It s somewhere between an elegy and an amused critique of the idea of history, and it works very well Plot wise, he sets up a great relationships for Shen Tai with the Taguran captain, his lost concubine love, and the foreshadowing of his complicated relationship with his brother There are hints of darkness closing in, and the close of the act delivers a perfect POW to the face that demands change.Act II I just I just don t know what Kay was thinking here I don t get it I kind of wanted to turn to the alternative Choose My Own Adventure He just turned the wrong way I don t know what else to tell you guys I felt like that horse in Beauty and the Beast when the old dad tells him to turn down the creepy ass road that s clearly going to get everyone involved murdered, and his face is all, Bitch kidding He left his perfectly wonderful story for three other ones, two of which were INCREDIBLY BORING Shen Tai becomes the incarnation of three movies about walking the Hollywoodized version Of the 300 pages that it takes for him to get to the capitol, here s an approximation of how he spends his share of pages 50 pages Thinking about how he hasn t had a woman in two years50 pages Being turned on by tufts of wind that may have been near the various goddess like women that populate the pages of this book50 pages Receiving important information in a whorehouse and having it repeated later20 pages Mildly important plot events2 pages Having repartee he believes is witty with a woman1 page Actually having sexThe remainder of the pages are taken up by alternate storylines Kay has always been one of the best among fantasy writers about giving women their due, and here he really does surpass himself The women are everywhere I d say their stories dominate the book, actually He should get some props for that Unfortunately, of the four major women, two were stereotypes and one was boring, and the other one got TOTALLY SHAFTED for incredibly lame theme reasons There were no Dianoras here, no Jehanes, no Catrianas We spend a good 200 pages with Shen Tai s sister and it s quite dull I mean, ostensibly, she s a cool Strong Woman and all, but he just doesn t have any passion about her and it shows The women he does have passion for are the ones you would expect him to the ones that are exquisite, beyond beautiful, and sexually confident The one female character who did emerge as a fully formed person with a layered story ends up totally not mattering at all What a waste And not in a beautifully thematic sort of way There s just no coherence here there s no woven tapestry like there typically is Usually in those moments, you get some kind of character development to make up for it Not in this case, as you see above riding, thinking about women, recapping plot, the end It feels like he just chose the wrong story to tell to me I wanted him to stick near the border, stuck between two forts what a great story that would ve been , I wanted his sister to get captured by brigands and become a pirate queen or something, or why not tell us about the Silk Road that you brought up continuously in the first 100 pages and then totally dropped in favor of events in the east Why not meet the mysterious princess who offered Shen Tai so great a gift Oooh, there are tigers down south and jungles to explore in India so why aren t we there He talks a lot about the stories history doesn t tell, those shunted to the side and then proceeded to do that in his story come on That might ve been part of the point, but we as readers should ve gotten one of the interesting choices, no One of my English teachers used to circle off hand sentences at the bottom of a secondary argument and say, Why didn t you write about this instead I know how she felt now Shen Tai was a potentially interesting character that was totally wasted on the rest of this book.Act III We finally get where we re going Unfortunately, the people we re being brought to meet are not at all worth the wait They re are caricatures of previous Kay characters, who ve been done better before I don t even like Fionavar that much, and I thought the heir to the throne was a poor man s Diarmuid, the emperor s consort a pale imitation of the empress from the Sarantine Duology, etc, etc He just gave me all the hallmarks, but didn t put any soul into them He gave me the customary language about being in awe and adoration of these people and didn t really give me much to adore everyone was much too distant and wasn t there for long enough The big climatic scene that s supposed to be a tragedy fails because we weren t set up to care The romance pissed me off a perfect example of Kay pausing at a fork in the road and taking the banal road, one that came up out of the blue I might add a total Alessan Catriana special , as opposed to the one he d beautifully set up from the very beginning, involving the only character I really cared about This is where the AS Byatt thing comes into play he seriously has the whole lost letter thing from Possession happen, with the same imagery, making the same point, rather clumsily, I thought I think I was supposed to just softly weep my heartbreak, but it just rung up as yet another poor storytelling choice This happened repeatedly, with all the best stuff from Act I with the family drama he set up at the beginning totally wasted , the possibly ambiguous villains they turn out to be black and white , and Shen Tai s involvement with the larger events of the empire just involved enough to make me want to follow that story, not involved enough to actually follow through And then, as if in parody of this whole thing, he committed the worst LOTR movie sin of them all The perilously long epilogue where it takes twelve tries to say goodbye mostly to characters who have been tragically oversimplified beyond hope of any connection I already had my idea for this review in my head and almost couldn t believe it was happening as I read it.It wasn t a bad book It just failed to live up to its potential You know, I just wrote a whole review of Kay s earliest work, making fun of him for being in constant, throbbing ecstasy all the time It turns out the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction In painful irony, this was a novel about balance, too.Overall It s like my mom said after I took her to see Into the Woods Told you nothing good could come of staying after the first act. Here the world is all the world may be.A powerful blend of historical fiction and fantasy, Kay delivers a great story about loss and honour This story is about Shen Tai who, after spending two years in mourning over the death of his father burying the bones and being haunted by their ghosts, is sent an unexpected gift of 250 Sardian horses, otherwise known as heavenly horses This instantly puts him in a position of power and Tai must decide what to do with this gift Set during a fantasized version of the Tang dynasty in eighth century China, Kay is able to create a majestic atmosphere I really enjoyed the role that poetry plays in the world Poetry is really important and Tai meets, and then travels with a famous poet and they share poems amongst themselves often I really enjoyed the romantic elements of this book, and that s something I don t think I ve ever said in a book review before Check out all my book blogs at format Kindle ebookLength 567 pagesReading difficulty MediumPOV Mainly follows Tai and his sister Li Mei but it does jump to other viewpointsPerson ThirdChronology LinearWritingKay s writing is magnificent He can carry emotions well and as such, the impactful elements of this story really stand out The poems featured within were really good, for the most part This book is infinitely quotable here are some of my favourite bits There was a new hole in the world where sorrow could enter a red violence was approaching from the east Vengeance could give birth to horrors not to be spoken aloud Branching paths The turning of days and seasons and years Life offered you love sometimes, sorrow often If you were very fortunate, true friendship Bitter wind blows battle smokeWild geese and cranes fly.Later, moon s disk in the water Plum blossoms mirrored in the river, Until they fall. It is difficult to feel that your life means anything under this sky Red song of war arrows, red sun The demons could triumph, take any man s soul, carry it off as a prize to their own red kingdomCharactersThe story follows Tai mostly, who is a very honourable character and very interesting Kay was able to make me feel is struggle and care about what happens to him throughout To me, this book should ve focused on Li Mei, Tai s sister, and Meshag Their relationship was tremendously interesting and I wanted to see of this I thought it was very unique Notable issuesA few of the side characters do blend into one another at various points There wasn t much unique about a lot of the minor characters which led to me having to stop and check that I had the correct person in my mind Kay does go a bit overboard with commas, but this is of a style point It s also a bit long in the tooth sometimes but it s a well thought out story.Final thoughtIf you re looking for dragons and wild fight scenes, look elsewhere This story, and Kay s other works are what I like to term Grown up historical fantasy It s subtle and it blends historical elements with great characters along with an emotional story If you are looking for a book that makes you feel something , I d highly recommend this, or Tigana, which is one of my favourite books of all time.

Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian author of fantasy fiction Many of his novels are set in fictional realms that resemble real places during real historical periods, such as Constantinople during the reign of Justinian I or Spain during the time of El Cid Those works are published and marketed as historical fantasy, though the author himself has expressed a preference to shy away from genre

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  • Hardcover
  • 573 pages
  • Under Heaven
  • Guy Gavriel Kay
  • English
  • 08 December 2019
  • 9780451463302

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