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Friday, May 7, 2010

"Under Heaven" by Guy Gavriel Kay (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu and Cindy Hannikman)


Guy Gavriel Kay at Wikipedia
Order "Under Heaven" HERE

INTRODUCTION: "It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses. You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor. Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already... "

I have tried quite a few of Guy Gavriel Kay's books across the years and they never managed to hold my interest, so "Under Heaven" was a novel I had no intention of picking up until I saw the glowing reviews in various places. So I decided to try the book when it was published and to my surprise I liked it though with some reservations I will touch upon later.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "Under Heaven" stands at almost 600 pages and follows mostly Shen Tai's pov, though there is a smaller thread that follows his sister Shen Li-Mei, raised to an honorary title of "Imperial Princess" by her oldest brother Shen Liu, first adviser to new young First Minister of Kitai Wen Zhou in order to further Kitai's foreign policy of pacifying barbarians by marrying "daughters" of the imperial line with their chiefs or heirs.

Several more notable characters are Wen Jian, current main concubine of the old and tired Emperor Taizu and who has the most influence on Kitai's internal policy and tries to maintain a balance between her cousin, the new First Minister and his number one rival, the most powerful general of the realm, An Li aka Roshan, Wei Song, a Kanlin warrior and bodyguard of Shen Tai, Sima Zian a famous poet and Spring Rain a courtesan in the capital Xinan.

"Under Heaven" is a standalone alternate history fantasy with hints of magic set in China's Tang dynasty about 755 AD, after a time of long peace and prosperity that is threatened by the aloofness from the affairs of state of the formerly very powerful Taizu and by the recent demise of his feared First Minister Chin Hai.

ANALYSIS: Liviu: "Under Heaven" has two awesome qualities that make it a worthwhile read by themselves: beautiful writing and exquisite world building. The ornate author' style works perfectly in the context of the peak of culture that was the Tang dynasty in the early to mid 700's and the book is a pleasure to be read and savored.

The world of Kitai in its variety - from the barbarian borders and even beyond, to crude soldiers' camps, to the well developed Imperial roads and canals and to the splendor of the main cities, especially of the capital Xinan - is marvelously recreated by the author with hints of subtle magic that take the book into the realm of fantasy.

Balancing that there were three main negatives for me: first Shen Tai who is both a child of privilege and the all around hero, fighter, scholar, poet, lover, you name it and for all that he is strangely passive for most of the novel and events happen to him and are guided mainly by the women around him. Of the rest of the main characters, most are sketches and we are told their qualities rather than really shown them, only Wen Jian who steals the show any time she is on the page and to a lesser extent Spring Rain are memorable.

And here we arrive at the second negative - while the main thread dealing with the horses, assassins and Shen Tai's involuntary role in the momentous events around is handled well from the beginning of the novel to its end, we are told way too many things rather than being shown them, as well as having too many repetitions both of events presented earlier and of the hero's inner thoughts. "Shen Tai was going to make now the most important decision of his life", or maybe the second most important or whatever, repeated once too many times becomes quite annoying.

And the last negative for me was the feeling of incompleteness the novel has regarding the big picture combined with some developments at the end regarding the hero's romantic life that seemed quite forced rather than natural.

All in all "Under Heaven" rates an A for me for its two superb attributes noted above but I read quite a few novels I enjoyed more this year and already even after a short time from reading it, it kind of faded from my memory.

Cindy: This was my first Guy Gavriel Kay book that I have shown any interest in. And it was quite an experience for myself.

GG Kay's books require a bit of time and thought behind them to fully understand and appreciate them. That's not to say that they can't be read in one sitting I just believe for those that haven't learned to read his style of writing it could take a bit of time to get used to.

Those that are looking for a plot that is straight-forward and upfront probably wouldn't enjoy this novel. While the storyline and characters are captivating, GG Kay takes readers on a round about journey to learn what is going on. There are side stories and side character interactions that take place, that divert from the storyline.

Another aspect that was a bit dizzying to the reader is the repetition of information that was told just pages before. I understand the need to make sure certain points are portrayed but there was no need to repeat them in such a short time span.

On the other hand there is so much detail that made this book amazing. The amount of depth into this whole Asian culture is absolutely mind blowing and really captivating. I couldn't draw myself away from it and really found it convincing.

The plot line while it does take a bit to get into is a bit captivating. There was something that kept me wondering about what would happen with the horses and the whole assassins. It was this ability to leave a reader wanting more that kept me reading.

Overall, it took a bit of time to get used to the writing and long descriptions but it was a great read. The characters and background stories were amazing, and the mystery involved with the main plot was captivating. There is plenty of research and background that went into it and for those that enjoy Asian flared stories this is the book for you. For myself, I enjoyed the book a lot more then I thought I would and the reading definitely got easier as the book went on, I just would have preferred the story be told a little more directly to the reader.

3 comments:

Patricia Altner said...

I have heard about this book and definitely want to read it. Thanks for the excellent review!

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words

Anonymous said...

I just read "Under Heaven" and really enjoyed it. I appreciate your review, but wanted to touch on the comments you made about Shen Tai. I get where you're coming from, however, I thought that he (Shen Tai) was merely staying in character in making the decisions (or non-decisions) that he did... One of the things I enjoy about Kay's writing is his ability to take into account cultural differences and how they influence behaviour. That's what I thought drove Shen Tai's actions - his upbringing as a younger son in a "Chinese" environment who would have been expected to be more passive, etc... That may have also explained the female characters, except for Spring Rain (who was Sardian) and Wen Jian (who was royalty, therefore more exempt from traditional behaviour).

Anyway, I've been enjoying reading your reviews - very insightful, so thanks!

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