Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay is neither historical fiction nor fantasy, but a fascinating blend of both. Carefully researched details of life in China during the Tang Dynasty blend with ghosts and folkloric beings come to life to provide a rich, satisfying backdrop to a gripping story.
Shen Tai spends two years of official mourning for his father burying the battle dead from both sides at a remote site in the mountains. Kay’s description brings the setting to life complete with the eerie sense of the spirits of the dead, haunting the battlefield until their bones are laid to rest. Tai knows he has buried one of the restless ghosts when he no longer hears it calling out in the night. But Tai’s private mourning draws royal attention, and a gift that will either make his fortune or destroy him.
As Tai rushes to the capital with news of the White Jade Princess’s gift of 250 magnificent horses, he is drawn into a whirlwind of palace intrigue. His brother is principal advisor to the First Minister who in turn is cousin to the beautiful and mysterious Wen Jian, Precious Consort and Beloved Companion of the emperor. During Tai’s absence, his ambitious brother has arranged to have their sister, Shen Li-Mei, adopted into the royal family and married off to a Nomad leader in the steppes. Li-Mei’s journey parallels Tai’s and becomes entangled in echoes of his earlier experiences with shamanic magic as a young cavalry officer. In a book filled with strong female characters, Li-Mei grows from a timid pawn to capable young woman determined to carve herself an active role in governing the empire. Meanwhile Tai struggles to find a balance between honor and duty, between love of home and family and love for his country and its inhabitants.
In Under Heaven, Kay weaves a complex tapestry of life in an alternate China. The fantasy elements are few, and seem to disappear entirely at times, only to reappear like metallic threads in the weave, adding richness and a sense of mystery. There is a depth to the plot that satisfies, balanced with enough action that the story never drags. Kay masterfully handles a wide cast of characters, giving each such a sense of individuality that the reader is able to follow the multiple plot lines without confusion. All loose ends are neatly tied off without the conclusion feeling contrived. And the novel ends back where it began, with the ghosts on the battlefield and the never-ending task of laying them to rest.
Under Heaven was the first novel by Kay that I have read. It definitely won’t be last the last.
This review was also published on the Central Rappahannock Regional Library’s Shelf Life blog on April 20, 2011. Check out the other great book reviews there by staff and volunteers at the library.