Book Review: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (5 stars)

Under Heaven
by Guy Gavriel Kay

5 out of 5 stars

Read in December 2010

Shen Tai mourns his father for over two years by burying the bones of the dead in a vast battlefield on the western edge of the Kitan empire. A backbreaking labor of grace daily and the company of the restless shades of soldiers nightly. He gains the respect of friend and foe and the attention of women in high places with influence, intrigue and power. The unfathomable gift of two hundred and fifty horses from a rival empire courtesy of a Kitan princes sent as tribute sets Shen’s life adrift on the high tide of potentially lethal imperial politics. He receives unlooked for and unlikely assistance from several women as he travels from the far western reaches to the very center of the Kitan empire in Xinan: a well trained assassin, Wei Song, sent by a former courtesan of the northwestern district previously known as Spring Rain and a former dancer now the favored courtesan of the emperor himself.

Even though we only ever see one of the famous Sardian horses for much of the novel, Shen repeatedly attempts to exchange them for knowledge of his sister and her rescue from the Bogu barbarians of the north, since his own older brother, now adviser to the prime minister, allowed her to be elevated to an imperial princes and sent as a tribute bride to the Bogu leader. But not even the most powerful players on this corrupted game board can assist Shen with his quest.

Kay delivers sweeping epic vistas of the open grass steppe and the heart-stopping gut-wrenching frenzy of court intrigue and rebellion. No other prose flows so seamlessly as Kays, completely engulfing me in the world he unfolds before me.

My only quibble with this novel, and which almost made me drop my rather to four or four and a half stars, was with the ending. Shifting to third person and a more remote historical sagacious point of view distanced me from the characters just as the story culminated and resolved. I still enjoyed the novel immensely, though, and highly recommend it.