Guy Gavriel Kay has been writing fantasy novels for quite awhile now however “Under Heaven” is the first novel by him that I have read. Yes, I see a few heading shaking among you and you might be right. I might be missing out on a few good reads because “Under Heaven” was a very good novel.
Although set in the Empire of Kitai, the story actually started on the western frontier of Kitai, Kuala Nor. The site of a massive battle 20 years ago between the Kitai and Taguran Empire, the place is now a no-man land between the 2 great Empires. It is also a massive graveyard for unburied soldiers from the battle. In the midst of the graveyard toiled Shen Tai, the second son of a Kitaian general who rose to prominence in the battle. Despite the ghosts of the unburied soldiers haunting the area, Shen Tai had been there for the past 2 years burying the bones of dead Kitan and Taguran soldiers in honor of his deceased father.
Thought of as a virtuous man due to his work, Shen Tai was given an unwanted gift of 250 prized Sardian horses from the Taguran Empire to honor his work burying the dead of both sides. After escaping an assassination attempt with the assistance of the ghosts of the Kuala Nor, Shen Tai has no choice but to leave for the capital of the Kitaian Empire, Xinan.
Along the way, he picked up allies and enemies who were drawn to him by the gift of the Sardian horses. He also picked up on the political situation of the Empire, including the fact that his younger sister Li-Mei has been made a princess of Kitai and had been sent off in marriage to the northern Bogu people. The arranged marriage was done by his older brother Shen Liu, who did it to further his own political career as well as their family’s fortune.
Knowing why it was done did not make Shen Tai any less angry with his brother for sending away their sister. Despite his wishes, Shen Tai also found that his horses has thrust him into the political and dynastic struggles of the empire and he has to make unwanted choices between personal and family needs especially when Kitai was rocked by a military rebellion.
As I said earlier, I have never read a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay before but after reading “Under Heaven”, I can just he is a good writer. The plot of “Under Heaven” is relatively simple but Kay managed to impose a sense of history to Kitai. The story is filled with small insights on how things are done in Kitai and the reasons (or at least the tradition) behind them. This gave Kitai a sense of being “lived-in” and made the Empire of Kitai more believable.
The main character of Shen Tai was also a winner. A man thrust into an unwanted situation by a gift he did not want but cannot reject, he was both realistic and heroic at the same time. Not an easy thing to do.
Another thing Kay done was to fill the story with appealing minor characters. Bytsan sri Nespo, the Taguran officer who helped Shen survived Kuala Nor was an interesting character who could never understand why he helped Shen Tai as much as he did. Another interesting character was Roshan, the general who rose up against the imperial rule. The would-be villain of the novel, he was a warrior who was always an outsider in the Kitai court due to his non-Kitai heritage and decided, not without reason, that he has a better chance of lifelong power by himself. This was a book where there wasn’t any real villains, only men who did things in their interest.
Of course not everything Kay did came off. About a fifth of the novel followed Shen Tai's sister Li-Mei during her adventures in the north and the whole piece was a bore. Her journey across the steppes with her rescuer Meshag could have been great, but it wasn’t. It was confusing at times and worse; boring. Most of the time when I reached Li-Mei’s part, I had to fight the urge to skip the whole chapter.
Also I found some the characters a little perplexing. The Banished Immortal was one of these. He is a swordsman, a poet, a wanderer, an adventurer all roll in one. All good and well, unfortunately he’s not the main character of the novel. Usually only the main character of the story gets to be everything at once and the Banished Immortal was a character that I can’t help but felt was underused in the novel because there’s just a story to be read there.
One thing that could be great or could be a complain is the amount of poetry in the novel. Kitai has a culture of poetry and it shows. At times, characters would break into poetry over drinks and there is even a poetry contest scene. How much you’ll enjoy them depends on how much you like poetry. If you enjoy poetry, this will be great. If you can’t tell good poetry from bad poetry, like me, this could be a problem.
Overall however, these are just minor complains as the story successfully weaves itself into a good book. Fill with interesting characters, “Under Heaven” is an excellent novel set in a rich new fantasy world. Here’s hoping there will be other novels set in the world of Kitai.