the Little Red Reviewer

Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Posted on: September 14, 2012

Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

published in 2010

where I got it: purchased new

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Under Heaven begins with haunting desolation, visits with imperial opulence, and then finds a sort of balance between them. A fitting journey, as the philosophies of the culture of Kitai focuses on balance in life, balance in all things.

In the western wildernesses of a fictional Tang Dynasty China known as Kitai, Shen Tai honors his late father by spending the requisite mourning period at the battleground, burying the dead of both sides, treating all he comes across with dignity and respect.  A Kitai Princess gives Tai a large gift of precious horses for his work at the battleground.  Understand, that horses are rare in Kitai, and that a man who owns two hundred and fifty of them could easily be seen as wealthier than the Emperor.

Tai’s first challenge is to get home alive. His next challenge is to survive the intrigue and subtleties of the court, where a man can be exiled, or worse, for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or having their poetry misinterpreted. Their courtly traditions may seem formal and cold  to Western eyes, but it’s these traditions that have kept Kitai powerful and strong through the generations that shaped it.


Tai finds himself suddenly very popular at the Imperial court, as everyone wants those horses, and he has very little time to figure out who is truly his friend, and who is trying to trap him. With the help of his bodyguard Wei Song and the itinerant poet Sima Zian, Tai might even live long enough to proclaim his love to the courtesan he left behind, even though she is now someone else’s private concubine.  To complicate matters, Tai’s younger sister Li-Mei has been given in marriage to a northern barbarian and the Emperor is surrounded by incompetent advisors and an ambitious heir.

Under Heaven isn’t a story with a plot and a handful of subplots; this is the story of a life, a world, an unfolding of a dangerous and uncertain future for an entire Empire. Everything that happens in this book, and I mean everything, is interconnected with everything else. Those incredible scenes with Li-Mei while she is with the northern tribes? Wouldn’t have been possible without a chance interaction that happened years ago.  Tai’s meeting and friendship with the poet, Sima Zian? Also dependent on something else. I loved the interconnectedness, the organicness of everything.   I also loved the opulence of the Imperial court of Kitai, completely and utterly different to royal courts many of us are used to in historical fantasies that take place in “Europe-land”, it reminded me of the movie The Curse of the Golden Flower. The Emperor of Kitai is truly the Son of Heaven, and is treated as such.

Something that always draws me back to the works of Guy Gavriel Kay is the powerful and intense emotions he writes into his characters. Much of the prose in Under Heaven is so beautiful that it breaks your heart, and the end? Come on, this is a Kay book, of course the end is beyond magnificent. And yet.   and yet???

And yet in all that beauty and opulence and mature complexity, I felt there was very little passion and very little intimate connection between characters.  Under Heaven hasn’t diminished my love for Guy Gavriel Kay, but it’s not my favorite novel of his. While the beginning and end of the novel were sublime, the middle dragged horribly for me, to the point where the book felt like a thought experiment gone awry.  The characters are all trying to guess what other people are thinking, so there is pages upon pages of internal dialog, and many conversations consist of hidden meanings and sly references. After such a conversation, Tai asks a friend “what just happened?”, and I laughed out loud in sympathy.  I was also very disappointed that some of my favorite side-plots didn’t seem to go anywhere, and at the end didn’t seem important to the main story. To say that Under Heaven is dense and subtle is the understatement of the year.  At times I felt like I was reading Umberto Eco.

I believe I understand what Kay was trying to do – I believe he was trying to make the feel and the patterns of the book match how someone would feel in the courtly environs of Kitai. It’s not that the characters are quiet or dull or passionless, it’s that those emotions are expressed very differently in this culture. Life is slower paced, with conversations that linger through meals and beautiful music. Civil servants write patterned poetry that drips with references to sacred animals, and history is written by the Emperor’s supporters. Life has balance and symmetry, and where your first misstep is your last, you better weigh every option before entering a room or a conversation.  If that’s what Kay was doing, he succeeded.  But as a reader trying to slog through it, it didn’t work for me.

If you’re planning on reading Under Heaven, don’t let this review stop you. By all means, pick it up. Just be aware that it is on a completely different level than The Lions of Al-Rassan or Ysabel.  The subtleties are deeper, the plot is far slower, the characters aren’t as easy to get to know.   Kay is currently writing River of Stars, the next book in this Kitai “tapestry”, same place, possibly same time-frame, different characters.  I’ll most likely pick up this new one, simply because it has Kay’s name on it and I like seeing historical China through his eyes, but I truly hope the story develops a little faster.

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13 Responses to "Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay"

I tried one of his titles a while back, and it just didn’t work for me. Hopefully I’ll want to give him a try again in the future. I know he gets much love from a lot of people!

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Had I not heard such good things about the end of the book, I’d have put it down and come back to it later. It reads like it was written by someone who’d never read a book before, you know? just flows in a very odd and unexpected way.

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Wow, great review of the book. It makes me want to read it!

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If you’re new to Guy Gavriel Kay, this might not be the best book to start with, it’s good, but it’s not his best.

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I really enjoyed this book, with this tile, Lions of Al-Rassan, and The Last Light of the Sun being my 3 favorites. But I understand what you mean by the second half of your review – my man didn’t make it through this novel even tho he has read every other GGK book.

I thought River of Stars was same general place but 200 years later? I am also looking forward to this coming out.

Great review.

Just FYI: The Court of the Lion by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri is a great historical fiction set in the same time and place, focusing on the court and the barbarian general An Lu-shan.

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nice bit of info about River of Stars! the extend of my knowledge is that it’s coming out soon. So, hmmm, same place, but many generations later, it’ll be interesting to see how Kitai has changed over the years.

Another novel about An Lushan? i am intrigued!

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I don’t know how this happened but I’ve somehow managed to have not read any of Kay’s books, though I’ve been intending to. I guess I won’t start with this one then, perhaps Ysabel then.

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This is actually the first (and only) book I’ve read so far by GGK. There were things I liked about it (the beginning was amazing, with Shen Tai and the ghosts), but overall it didn’t really work for me either. I had been wondering if this was a good representation of Kay’s work. Maybe I’ll try “Ysabel” or something next :).

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I haven’t read this one yet. It’s strange, I went through a phase of reading loads by GGK, and then stopped, and I sortof didn’t want to read any more because they were so good, and what if the new ones weren’t…
But I should get back to him.

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i’m kind of going through that with a handful of authors right now, where i love their older stuff to pieces, and their newer books just aren’t doing it for me.

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[...] books 8, 9 & 10 before jumping into this prequel trilogy. -The Little Red Reviewer had some mixed feelings on Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay. -Mihai's review of Blue & Gold by K.J. Parker reminds me [...]

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Good review. Shame this didn’t quite meet your expectations which is disappointing when it’s one of your favourite authors. Still, it’s not put you off the author. Imagine if this had been your first book – you would have probably not been tempted to go and pick up his others!
Lynn :D

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i’m so happy this wasn’t my first Kay, because yeah, I probably wouldn’t have gone back to him. Not sure if it’s nostalgia or what, But I’ve been enjoying Kay’s older work so much more than his newer stuff. and it’s the newer stuff that’s been winning awards left and right!

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