Saturday, October 2, 2010

Review: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Shen Tai has spent the last two years among the dead. In an effort to honour the memory of his recently deceased father he has been burying the unnumbered dead on an isolated battle site. He makes no distinction between those of his own people, the Kitan, and the bones of their former enemies. As a result he is honoured by both sides who supply him with the necessary provisions to survive. Shen’s life is changed forever when he learns that the princess Cheng-Wan has decided to bequeath two hundred and fifty Sardian horses to him. One such horse is enough to reward a man greatly, four or five will raise him far beyond his peers, two-hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift more than even the emperor himself has. Before Shen can even consider what such a gift will mean he is surprised by the arrival of Chou Yan, an old friend bearing some important news. Before he can give this news he is slain by his Kanlan guard who was secretly an assassin in disguise charged with killing Shen. Shen survives the attempt but is shaken as the assassin was sent after him before he was given the horses. Shen has little choice but to return to attempt to return to the capital, hoping answers may be found there.

Like many of Kay’s previous novels Under Heaven is based on a particular time period namely 8th century China. A number of other authors have utilized Chinese culture in fantasy settings but what sets Kay apart is the way Kay seamlessly weaves an unfamiliar worldview and way of thinking about the characters and makes it feel…well normal and believable. Something I noticed in some of Kay’s earlier novels was an overarching theme; namely the world is filled with interconnecting stories. This theme is present here as well and is conveyed well through the use of character perspectives. Most of the novel is told from Shen’s perspective but are broken up by chapters from other usually minor characters view of events. Kay does a good job of conveying that while the events of Shen’s story have an impact on them they are in the middle of their own stories. Indeed the direction the story took at the three-quarter mark was intriguing. There is an all important war being fought but the reader gets no more than glimpses of it as Shen decides his life lies in another direction.

Overall I’d have to say that Under Heavn is the best Kay novel I’ve read so far. 9/10.

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