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Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

01/10/2010. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy Under Heaven in the USA - or Buy Under Heaven in the UK

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pub: ROC/Penguin. 567 page hardback. Price: $26.95 (US). ISBN: 978-0-451-46330-2.

check out website: www.penguin.com

Myth and legend have long been a fertile ground for all writers whether Science Fiction, fantasy or mainstream. There is something in these tales that catch the imagination of reader and writer alike. Every culture has its folk tales that can be mined for ideas. The same is true about history. Pure historical novels set their stories against a background of documented events. The best blend good writing with glimpses of the life-styles – costumes, architecture and mores – of the times. Historical romances tend to be a little more relaxed about being accurate – that is not what the story is about. The large, very popular genre of historical crime needs to mix a good setting with a knowledge of the laws and punishments of the time. But when a fantasy writer gets their hands on history, anything can happen. In John M. Ford’s ‘The Dragon Waiting’ the princes in the tower were vampires, David Gemmell’s ‘Alexander’ had the power of ancient Atlantis influencing his actions in Lion of Macedon, Naomi Novik has dragons fighting in the Napoleonic wars in her ‘Temeraire’ series.

Guy Gavriel Kay is also man who likes to play with history. His novel, ‘Sailing To Sarantium’, was an alternative world narrative based on the Late Roman Empire. ‘Under Heaven’ travels east down the Silk Road to the China of the Tang Dynasty.

This was a highly civilised and mannered society. Everyone knew their place and to rise in society it was necessary to pass examinations. Not only was it necessary for even the humblest to be able to read and write but it was also important to know history and to write poetry.



One young man, Shen Tai, is prevented from taking his exams by the death of his father, General Shen Gao. According to custom, the family is expected to withdraw from society for a period of two and a half years. The only exceptions are for those with military rank. Tai decides to spend his period of mourning on the plains of Kuala Nor, the site of fierce battles between his people, the Kitai, and the Tagur. As his father won a great victory there, his self-imposed task honours the memory of his father as well as the fallen. He spends two years alone, burying the bones of the dead. His only visitors other the nightly manifestations of the ghosts, are soldiers from the forts on either side of the plain bringing him supplies.

Lives can change on a whim. When the Kitan princess, who was sent to Tagur as a peace bride, hears of Tai’s efforts, she gifts him with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses. These are the most sought after horses in the whole of Kitai making Tai immediately the target for assassins. Unfortunately, an assassin is already on the way, sent by the new first minister, Wen Zhou, but for an entirely different reason. Wen has taken Tai’s favourite geisha, Spring Rain, as his concubine and wants to get rid of a potential rival. The assassin, an ex-Kanlin warrior, has accompanied Tai’s friend Xin Lun who is bringing news that he thinks Tai ought to know. Unfortunately, Xin Lun is killed before he can tell his friend that his sister has been elevated to princess and shipped off beyond the Wall to be the wife of a barbarian tribal chief.

Tai has to negotiate through the minefield of manners and political intrigue. A casual gift has already changed his life; it could change the fate of his nation as well.

This is a book with strong characters. In a society that we tend to think of as male-shaped and dominated Kay has provided four women through whom the destiny of the men is determined. Wen Jian is a beautiful courtesan with whom the ageing emperor is besotted. She is ambitious and had her cousin, Wen Zhou, elevated to the position of First Minister. It is not her fault that his skills at diplomatic strategy are sadly lacking. Spring Rain has not forgotten the student, Shen Tai, and when she hears that an assassin has been sent to kill him, she secretly hires a Kanlin warrior to protect him. The Kanlin are very skilled and represent the only aspect of this society where men and women are equal. Wei Song takes her responsibilities as Tai’s bodyguard very seriously, saving him from several attempts on his life. After her elevation to princess, Tai’s sister, Shen Li-Mei follows a different path, away from the central action but survives her ordeals because of her strength of character.

Poetry is a strong theme running through the book. It forms the essence of society. To rise in rank, skill in poetry is essential. To be a poet is to gain respect. Tai’s friend, Sima Zian, is able to take liberties, especially with women, and get away with it, because he is a poet.

This is a book that starts with a strong image and unfolds in a mannered way. It is never short of interest, the life in ancient China being painted with deft strokes and the beauty of fine poetry. Kay, who has published a book of poetry, uses words with the same skill as the ancient Chinese.

Pauline Morgan

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This book has 174 votes in the SFcrowsnest.com sci-fi charts


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