Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
A Recommended Book of the Month
Before you begin reading this review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven I would like to make some things clear. I am a fan of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work but not to the point of sycophancy. Tigana was a wonderful book, amongst the best I read as a young adult and the two books that made up The Sarantine Mosaic I found similarly excellent. I enjoyed The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Fionavar Tapestry but not to the same extent as the two previously mentioned titles. The reason I say this is so that it puts this positive review of Under Heaven into perspective.
Under Heaven, inspired by the Tang Dynasty of Ancient China, is as beautiful and enriching a novel as you could possibly wish for. Kay is an expert storyteller, his writing style strong and fluid, his exposition always necessary and worked seamlessly into the narrative. He has successfully re-imagined Ancient China in the same accessible and absorbing way that he previously achieved with medieval France, Ottoman Spain and Renaissance Italy.
The first thing that draws you into the world that Kay has created is the synopsis on the back cover:
For two years Shen Tai has mourned his father, living like a hermit by a mountain lake where terrible battles have long been fought between the Kitai and the neighbouring Tagurans, including one for which his father - a great general - was honoured. But Tai's father never forgot the brutal slaughter involved. The bones of 100,000 soldiers still lie unburied by the lake and their wailing ghosts at night strike terror in the living, leaving the lake and meadow abandoned in its ring of mountains. To honour and redress his father's sorrow, Tai has journeyed west to the lake and has laboured, alone, to bury the dead of both empires.
It is such a simple gesture made by Shen Tai but one that readers will immediately identify with, much in the same way that it also resonates with the characters within the book itself. I would have been quite happy had the entire book stayed with Shen Tai by the lakes of Kuala Nor, burying the bones and appeasing the ghosts of the dead, such was the haunting beauty of the situation.
Kay's inspiration for Shen Tai’s story lies in a poem written by eighth century Chinese poet Li Po regarding the unburied bones littering a desolate battlefield on the Tibetan borderlands, and of a solitary modern figure who is placating the ghosts of the fallen soldiers by burying their still-visible remains. In a recent interview Kay spoke about how this poem inspired him:
“That started me on my book. The idea that, 1,400 years later, these bones are unburied, and a 20th-century businessman felt a pious and psychological impulse to do what he could – 1,400 years later! – to lay to rest those ghosts. That started me thinking about a way I could start my novel. That’s how it does start.”
Indeed, the author’s deep and profound love for poetry is very evident throughout. The Tang Dynasty is known as a golden age of Chinese poetry and the character of Sima Sian, the Banished Immortal, is based upon the legendary Li Po.
A delightful Taoist theme runs throughout Under Heaven with the book’s strongest messages being that mankind’s time is transitory and attempts to create permanence are futile. It also promotes the need for balance, compassion and humility plus the importance of reverence for ancestor spirits. Kay’s work did, at times, remind me of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books, another example where Taoism and fiction work together in perfect harmony. Here, as with Le Guin’s work, the painstaking attention to detail (Under Heaven showcases seven years of detailed research) results in an unrushed and thoughtful narrative that is a joy to read.
“It asks the question, if you can't do everything is it best to do nothing at all? Who chooses their fate? Who accepts the world only as it comes to them?”
Excerpt from Under Heaven
Highly recommended, Under Heaven may well prove to be our favourite book of 2010, it will certainly take some beating.
Under Heaven was published in Canada (Viking Canada) on March 30, 2010. UK (HarperVoyager) and US (Roc Hardcover) publishing dates are the April 29, 2010 and April 27, 2010 respectively.
If you have read and enjoyed Under Heaven then Peter Ward’s novel for young adult’s Dragon Horse is also highly recommended.
Note: If you like to listen to soundtracks whilst reading books, trying to match book and film, then Tan Dun’s Hero is simply perfect, the haunting opening perfectly mirroring Shen Tai’s life by the haunted shores of Kuala Nor. Tan Dun is perhaps best known for his score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which shares with Hero a visual poetry that transcends the sword-filled action film genre.
This Under Heaven book review was written by Floresiensis
Have you read Under Heaven?
We've found that while readers like to know what we think of a book they find additional reader reviews a massive help in deciding if it is the right book for them. So if you have a spare moment, please tell us your thoughts by writing a reader's review. Thank you.
Under Heaven reader reviews
Andy from Reading
What a wonderfully written book, the characters, scenes, pace and story are all brilliantly done, this is the first GGK book I have read, and I can certainly say it will not be my last. I suppose my only criticism and it is very very small, is that the book is very neatly wound up, that said, this book is brilliant.
9.4/10 from 2 reviews
Write a reader review
Thank you for taking the time to write a review on this book, it really makes a difference and helps readers to find their perfect book.
More recommended reading in this genre
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Two magicians shall appear in England. The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me The year is 1806. England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, a...
The Yiddish Policemen's Union
What if, as Franklin Roosevelt once proposed, Alaska - and not Israel - had become the homeland for the Jews after World War II? In Michael Chabon's Yiddish-speaking ...
Hats off to Brandenburg
London, 1815 – The Roxy Playhouse is in trouble! The Roxy Playhouse Irregulars, those libertine artists and dreamers, are up to their necks in debt – “Pay...
The Master and Margarita
Moscow, 1929: a city that has lost its way amid corruption and fear, inhabited by people who have abandoned their morals and forsaken spirituality. But when a mysterious st...
Catherynne M Valente
Child of the revolution, maiden of myth, bride of darkness. A handsome young man arrives in St Petersburg at the house of Marya Morevna. He is Koschei, the Tsar of Life, an...
Only five still guard the borders between the worlds. Only five hold back what waits on the other side. Once the Oversight, the secret society that polices the lines betwee...
The Gamehouse is an unusual institution. Many know it as the place where fortunes can be made and lost through games of Chess, Backgammon - every game under the sun. But a ...
The Bear and the Nightingale
In a village at the edge of the wilderness of northern Russia, where the winds blow cold and the snow falls many months of the year, a stranger with piercing blue eyes pres...
Nights at the Circus
Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe's capitals, part swan... or all fake? Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordin...
In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers – the keepers of thi...
The War at Troy
The people who lived in those days were closer to gods than we are, and great deeds and marvels were commoner then, which is why the stories we have from them are nobler an...
The Golem and the Djinni
Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, di...
Land of Hope and Glory
It is 1852. The Indian empire of Rajthana has ruled Europe for more than a hundred years. With their vast armies, steam-and-sorcery technology and mastery of the mysterious...
One Hundred Years of Vicissitude
"First up, a disclaimer. I suspect I am a dead man. I have meagre proof, no framed- up certification, nothing to toss in a court of law as evidence of a rapid departur...
Those Poor, Poor Bastards
The year is 1868... In the Sierra Nevada, during the expansion of the Central Pacific Railroad, Nina Weaver and her pa, Lincoln, trundle into Coburn Station with a wagonful...
Looking for more suggestions? Try these pages:
Books of the Month
A selection of books - old and new alike - that were a joy to read.
The Pirate Isles are united under Drake Morrass’ flag, but the war has only just begun. There’s still a long way to go before he’s able to call himself King, and traitors at every turn. The Five Kingdoms and Sarth have assembled a fleet of ships unlike any the world has ever seen and they intend to purge the Pirate Isles once a...
Ian C Esslemont
After the disappointments of Li Heng, Dancer and Kellanved wash up on a small insignificant island named Malaz. Immediately, of course, Kellanved plans to take it over. To ...
Age of Swords
Michael J Sullivan
Raithe, the God Killer, may have started the rebellion by killing a Fhrey, but long-standing enmities dividing the Rhunes make it all but impossible to unite against the co...
A Time of Dread
The Ben-Elim, a race of warrior angels, once vanquished a mighty demon horde. Now they rule the Banished lands. But their dominion is brutally enforced and their ancient en...
The Last Dog on Earth
Adrian J Walker
Every dog has its day... And for Lineker, a happy go lucky mongrel from Peckham, the day the world ends is his: finally a chance to prove to his owner just how loyal he can...
The Shadow Crucible
Taking humanity back to their primordial beliefs and fears, Estella confronts Mikhail’s faith by revealing the true horror of the lucrative trade in human souls. All ...
The Dog Stars
Hig, bereaved and traumatised after global disaster, has three things to live for - his dog Jasper, his aggressive but helpful neighbour, and his Cessna aeroplane. He's...