Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
I first encountered Guy Gavriel Kayís work in Ysabel, a contemporary urban fantasy with a strong teen protagonist who becomes involved in an enthralling adventure. (See my review here.) Set in a fantasy world based heavily on eighth-century China, his new title, Under Heaven, follows the adventures of Shen Tai, a young man who has purposely separated himself from the world while in deep mourning for his father. In the wilds of imperial Kitai, far from the Emperor and court intrigue, Tai has been burying the dead from the long-ago Battle of Kuala Nor. Although the war with Tagur is a memory, the battle haunted Taiís father, a prominent Kitai general and so he buries the dead -- all of the dead -- at Kuala Nor to honor him and the men he fought with and against. In the process, he recognizes the ghosts of Kuala Nor who find silence only after their bones are laid to rest. His willingness to do this difficult and rather frightening job brings him unexpected attention, and sets the novelís events in motion.
In chapters written with the deepest care (the writing here is remarkable) the reader learns that when the Kitai-Tagur war ended, a Kitai princess was delivered to Tagur to become an imperial wife and unite the two countries in peace. This princess is impressed with Taiís work at Kuala Nor, and rewards him with the promise of 250 Sardian horses. The horses are renowned in the region, and thus an unprecedented gift, and it quickly places Taiís life in danger from those who wish to control his prize. Before he can fully grasp how much everything has changed, however, an old friend arrives with important news. The deadly incident that follows places Tai at the center of all sorts of plots and plans that have ensnared his family during his seclusion.
As Kitai trembles on the precipice of civil war, the horses gain even greater significance. Tai must find a way to receive them while also uncovering the source of a dangerous plot. With few people to trust and a long road ahead, he is a man who sought to do a relatively simple thing to honor his father, and now finds himself staring down those who would make war. From spies to concubines, marriages of convenience to promises of power, the imperial world is one Tai can barely imagine let alone safely navigate. Itís a dangerous place for a man to be, and without some highly trusted friends and the ever present value of the horses, his death is certain. Tai is forced to play politics even as he strives to avoid the nefarious plots swirling around him, but in the end, he can not hide from a history that insists on unfolding. In fact, in the end, he can barely save himself, let alone the people he cares about†-- and yet still and always there are the horses, the prize that makes him too valuable to kill but also impossible to ignore.
Under Heaven impressed the hell out of me for many reasons, but first and foremost because it is a story. This is an epic the likes of which we do not often see in the contemporary literary landscape. It covers the human spectrum from war to love, with a plot that carries the reader forward with a rash of events that are both exciting and yet strikingly familiar. While Kitai lives only in Kayís imagination, the machinations behind the action in the novel will be obvious to any student of history. What the author proves with this fantasy though is how pedestrian the causes of war (and threats to peace) are. It is, of course, all arrogance and avarice, which makes Taiís commitment to the dead at Kuala Nor stand out all that much more. He is the hero, not for what he did on the battlefield, but for what he did later, when no one was watching and all the honors had long been awarded. This makes Under Heaven both a book that anyone can identify with and also one that exposes our own often misguided ideas of bravery, honor, and even manhood.
Stunning in its honesty, with an intelligent style that brooks no foolishness on the part of character or reader, Under Heaven is as entertaining as it is thoughtful. This is great writing, and I promise it is a book you will not soon forget.
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay