It took me less than ten hours to finish this book (okay, six lunch breaks and some extra hours reading while working) and I probably won’t be able to explain why. I’ll try, though. There’s something about this book that makes it so compulsively readable, and I have no idea what it is. Yes, that’s a compliment.
I haven’t read a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s difficult to find copies of his books in my country, and the one I’d read (Tigana) scarred me so deeply that I stopped actively searching for the rest of his works. Still, I was interested when I saw Under Heaven.
The novel is set in an alternate universe, differently named version of Tang Dynasty China. It follows Shen Tai, the second son of a famous general. He journeys to remote Kuala Nor, site of a huge battle his father participated in, and buries the bodies, quieting the dead. His home country Kitai (China) and rival Tagur (India, probably) take note of this. The latter rewards him with 250 Sardian horses, prized by Kitai because they’re the best horses ever bred and are ridiculously hard to acquire. Naturally, the Kitai court starts paying attention and Tai gets embroiled in the machinations of the Emperor’s favorite concubine Wen Jian and First Minister Wen Zhou.
And then there’s his sister Shen Li-Mei, who is sent north to the Bogu tribes as a tribute bride. She is rescued by the mysterious Meshag, who owes Shen Tai his life. Meanwhile, Kitai is on the brink of chaos as barbarian general An Li and Wen Zhou vie for power.
The prose is lush and atmospheric but doesn’t bog down the plot with descriptions. There’s a feeling of serenity to the whole thing despite the chaos of the later parts (spoiler alert: the book is based on the An Lushan Rebellion). I could say this dissonant serenity robs the book of tension - and it does - but this doesn’t make Under Heaven any less beautiful.
I admit I am far more invested in Wen Jian and Spring Rain (a former courtesan, now concubine of Wen Zhou) than the Shen siblings. They’re dangerous women fighting to keep their loved ones safe in the only way they can: by manipulating the men around them. I wish Jian had POV sections. It would’ve been interesting to see into the mind of the woman who holds the empire in the palm of her well-manicured hand, but I suppose the mystery is part of her appeal.
My one complaint is that Tai isn’t a very appealing protagonist. Much is made of his being unpredictable, of his struggle to find a balance between his temper and his desire for peace, but I just don’t see it. The narrative says he’s hot-headed, but he is mostly presented as calm and perceptive. I felt that I was being told what he’s like rather than shown it. Fortunately, he’s buoyed by well-written secondary characters.
Still, I appreciate Tai’s place in the narrative. He’s a simple man overwhelmed by great and terrible events. These great and terrible events occur under a vast, uncaring sky. Tai’s smallness to the world’s greatness, and the world’s smallness to the sky’s vastness is a beautiful symmetry. I suppose that’s the point of the book: all things pass under heaven.
The Verdict: Under Heaven is one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read. Highly recommended.