Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

In Guy Gavriel Kay’s stand-alone novel Under Heaven, Shen Tai takes it upon himself to bury the dead at Kuala Nor, the site of a horrendous battle between Tai’s country Kitai and a rival nation, in honor of his recently deceased father. At the end of two years, he is still unfinished.

Then the Empress of Tagur sends him a royal gift in the form of two hundred and fifty Sardian, or Heavenly Horses: enough to make Tai wealthy beyond imagination, and enough to mark him for death. Tai’s world is completely overturned. Once word gets out about his gift of Heavenly Horses, Tai finds himself being dragged back into a world of politics, intrigue, and danger in which he must face old loves and new enemies.

Beautiful writing
The greatest thing about this book was its musicality. Poetry plays such an important role in the story, and it was clear from the very beginning that it influences Kay’s writing as well. The passages are rich, tasty morsels. It is as if Kay has found a way to turn the English language into a meal, serving it up like a five-star restaurant. Whether it is the description of a city, a heartbreaking moment, or even a line of wisdom, the words emerge beautiful and enticing.

Rich, vivid world
This type of language helps build the fantastic world Kay brings to the reader. Known for his historic fantasy, Kay takes the readers to a land reminiscent of eighth-century China with Under Heaven. He slowly builds the complex society, the rich cast of characters, and the sweeping landscapes with timeliness and aplomb. This is a world filled with decadence at times and humility at others, and Kay treats both with a sense of dignity and wonder.

Dreadfully slow pace
My main problem with Under Heaven was that it had a very slow pace. I hate saying this, but it even felt boring at times. This is my first time reading a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, and I had heard many great things about him. I don’t know whether or not this is his usual style but it was not doing anything for me. While the prose is beautiful and the characters well written, the plot developments did nothing to grab my attention. If you are already a fan of Kay, you are most likely used to his style and will enjoy this book, but for newcomers, this might not make the best introduction to his work.

No sense of reward
Another thing that I noticed was that while we followed the characters and discovered their world, I always felt that I was on the outside looking in. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but I felt distanced as a reader from the characters at certain points in the novel. At these points, I wanted to dig deeper, get to know them better, and really see what they were feeling. Sometimes I was able to do so and it was wonderful, but these moments weren’t frequent enough to develop a connection with any one character. Kay does his work, and by the end you understand them well enough, but I wish Kay had dug deeper beneath the surface for more than just those few brief moments.

Why should you read this book?
If you enjoy Kay’s other works, you’ll most likely enjoy this one, but newcomers may want to start with an earlier work of Kay’s to get used to his style of pace and plot.

That is not to say that I am not turned away from his works forever. There were parts of the book I absolutely enjoyed and lines of prose I’m still giddy about. I hope to look into some of his other works in the future. For now, though, if you enjoy historic fantasy with delicious prose and can appreciate a novel that takes time to enjoy, then Under Heaven may be the book for you.

About Martin Cahill

Martin Cahill
Marty is a 20 year old English Major and Theatre Minor, and while he still possesses his youthful idealism, hopes to become a writer/actor/improv comedian when he grows up. When that will happen, no one truly knows. Since a young age, he has never been without a book close by, and most likely never will be; this is most likely his parents’ fault. Marty hopes to one day write something memorable. Hopefully, this will occur more than once, fingers crossed. Thank you for coming and enjoy the site!

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  1. Do “Little, Big” by John Crowley.

  2. Ahhh I wanted so badly to like this book when it came out! Ysabel was such a departure from GGK’s usual style, and when I read the blurb on this one, I thought it would be wonderful. Alas, I found everyone but the main character to be pretty shallow — especially all the women in the book. Under Heaven just didn’t feel real or emotional to me. Many of GGK’s other books — Tigana, Lions, Mosaic, Last Light of the Sun — made me cry!! But this one just didn’t do it.

    I didn’t find the pace slow, though — just the lack of emotionality leeched every event of depth or urgency. If anything I thought the whole book felt a little under-developed compared to his old ones.

    SIIGH … GGK of the 90s, come back to me 🙂 Maybe I’ve just grown out of his work. I first encountered him in high school.

    • Definitely Tigana. I think that’s the most beloved GGK work overall. I also really loved The Sarantine Mosaic. But honestly, I’m a fan of everything he wrote before Ysabel. I haven’t read the books in a long time, so I’m not sure if I’d love them as much now, but I do know that I totally adored them when I first read them.

      The Fionavar Tapestry, his first series, is a departure from typical GGK writing. At first I disliked it but I’ve come around over the years, although I still think of it as GGK’s trial run! 🙂

  3. Marty (RD Staff)

    No, I understand completely. I had heard a lot of good things about Kay and the premise seemed interesting. But, ultimately nothing except the prose stood out to me.

    But I’m not going to give up yet! You said Tigana was worth a look, right Caleigh?

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