Under Heaven was a 2010 historical fantasy novel by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. It was his eleventh novel and his first work set in the Chinese backdrop. I first read this book back in 2011 and adored it to the core. About two days ago, I read it once again. The reading experience was as good as the first time, probably even better, for I discovered so many good things in the second go, the things that I hadn’t been aware of before.
Right at the outset, I should tell you that this book is certainly not for everyone. It’s charm lies in its magnificently poetic language and an ever-present poignant tone. I do realise that not everyone is fond of ornate style of writing and some find pathos cloying. It all depends on what you prefer, really. If you have read any other Kay book and liked it, chances are you will fall in love with this one.
The story is about Shen Tai, the second son of a deceased army general. For two years, Shen Tai has laid the dead of the battle – which happened between the Kitai and the Taguran, a rival empire – to rest in Kuala Nor, a remote place in the mountains, extreme westward of Kitai empire, far from his home. It was also the venue of the aforementioned battle and is now the home to thousands of unappeased, restless souls of Kitai and Taguran soldiers.
Tai lives in a small cottage with few scant possessions of his own and a few little luxuries provided by the soldiers from both sides who treasure the noble work he is doing for their long-dead comrades. The dead make sounds at night, some angry, and some merely sad. Tai has learned to live with them. The ghosts and the sounds.
Suddenly, his life takes a totally unanticipated twist. He is given a stupendous gift by the Taguran princess for his courage and deeds done to the dead – a whopping 250 Sardian horses. These horses are considered the best in the world and are known for their quality and strength. You could give five of those amazing steeds to an emperor and be praised for your generosity. Two-hundred and fifty is an unthinkable number, for practically anyone, let alone to an ordinary man with no claims to a noble birth.
Now, this gift is a double-edged sword. From one perspective, he has become one of the wealthiest men in the world and could gain the friendships of the most powerful people in Xinan – the capital of Kitai. From another perspective, every man in the empire would love to possess those horses, and they might do anything, which involves everything from killing to stealing, for them.
Fraught with intermingled feelings of excitement and apprehension, Tai starts his journey home and Xinan. After that, things change quite radically for Tai. With the gift of the Sardian horses, he has instantly become one of the most important people in the royal court. There, Tai discovers some unforeseen friends and also, some unexpected enemies.
The prose is marvellous, like with any other book by the author. Kay weaves a beautiful tale without compromising on the writing. This fact manifests itself while reading the very first few lines of the book:
“Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans”.
Characters are very very nicely drawn too. No compromise here, either. Their motivations are quite believable and yet the unfolding events manage to take you by surprise. Shen Li-Mei, the younger sister of Tai, is probably the most intriguing character in the book. For me, at least. Her character arc blossoms out superbly over the course of the book.
The only complaint I have with this otherwise perfect book is the same one I have had with many other Kay’s books: abrupt ending. I wish the culmination was more detailed and descriptive. It seems a little odd when the tale of the characters you begin to care so much about gets wrapped up without warning.
Barring the ending, the book is an absolute delight to read. It is like any other Kay book, really, with a Chinese backdrop, and this is probably the biggest compliment I can bestow on the tome. Read it and you are unlikely to be disappointed.