Under Heaven : A Novel

Under Heaven : A Novel by Guy Gavriel Kay
May 2010, Roc (Penguin Group), $25.95

I’ll just be up front, Kay is one of my very favorite authors, one I try to emulate in my own writing struggles, and I’ve long been bewildered with his relegation to the relative obscurity of the fantasy genre.   His past several books, with the exception of Ysabel, have been alternate history rather than classic fantasy, books like The Lions of Al Rassan, Sailing for Sarantium, and Last Light of the Sun — set in an early medieval world populated by Byzantines, Vikings, Moors, Jews, and Spaniards.  The alternate part of history consists mainly of different names for the peoples and places and an intimacy with the subjects that Kay believes can only honestly be set in ‘another place and time’.  To this list, now add Under Heaven, which is set in Kay’s vision of the Tan Dynasty of China, here called “Kitan”.

In Under Heaven, Kay is once again a master of inevitable tragedy, of unexpected wisdom and valor in the terrible face of history, and of sorrow, which though it may have never touched the reader, is still carried within each of us as a kind of ancestral memory, and which responds to the stories Kay tells.

This time, it is the story of Shen Tai, the second son of a great general, whose life as a student striving for a position in the labyrinthine system of mandarins, is interrupted by his father’s death and the mandatory two year mourning period.  He chooses to honor his father by spending the two years burying the bones of the soldiers lying in a remote mountain valley – the scene of one of his father’s greatest victories, one of a long string of battles fought there over the centuries.  His time of mourning is cut short by a series of surprises that change not only his own life, but also shifts the balance of power in the ancient empire in a cascade of breathtaking adventure and intimate encounters.

If you’ve never read Kay, and if you like historical fiction, Under Heaven is a great one to start with.  If you’re already a Kay fan, run, don’t walk, to get this latest treasure!

Reviewed by Annie Leonard
The Next Chapter, Knoxville, Iowa


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