South of us Xinan lies under a sickle moon.
Lanterns will soon be bright in the spring night.
Laughter and music and rich wine poured.
Far to the west where all roads end.
Cold stars shine on white bones.
Beside the stone shores of a lake.
In the valley of Kuala Nor, beside the waters of a lake, Shen Tai, the second son of General Shen Gao, pays respect to his father’s late memory by burying the bodies of those who have died in battle on this field. The rivalry between the medieval Chinese empires of Tagur and Kitai has left thousands upon thousands dead, and for two years Shen Tai has lived in this valley digging graves and laying to rest the corpses of the fallen. The seasons come and go — winter into spring and summer into autumn — and still in the darkness of the night, the ghosts of the unburied call out for eternal peace.
As an honor to his service, Cheng-wan (the wife to the Emperor of Tagur) bestows on Shen Tai a special gift, a gift of extraordinary measure and one that could cost him his life. Shen Tai desires one day to return home to his family estate beside the Wai River, but with news of this gift, he must leave Kuala Nor in order to receive it and to also find out who is trying to kill him.
Under Heaven is a story of beautiful prose and poetry. It is a story of lost love. Of spiritual healing. Of deception. Of rebellion. Of jealousy and hatred. And ultimately, a story of redemption. Kay’s words flow in perfect rhythm, like the leaves of autumn floating upon the Wai River.
He [Shen Tai] went through the compound and into the garden, carrying wine in an agate cup. He went past the pond where he’d spent so much time with his father, watching Shen Gao toss bread for the goldfish … Two years could change the world. For stones, for trees growing leaves in spring, dropping them in autumn, two years were inconsequential. A stone in a pond makes ripples, the ripples are gone, nothing remains.
Shen Tai’s search for answers takes him across Kitai to the capital of Xinan. He is accompanied by the young and beautiful Wei Song (a Kanlin warrior) and the poet Sima Zian, along with a host of soldiers sent to protect him. As he makes his way toward the capital, he thinks of reuniting with the woman he once loved, called Spring Rain, and he thinks about his sister Shen Li-Mei, who has been offered by their brother, Shen Liu, to another kingdom in the north as part of a political marriage alliance. Shen Tai wishes to confront his brother, who is now chief adviser to the first minister, Wen Zhou.
The names of the characters are difficult to keep straight at first, but the more the story progresses, it becomes easier to remember them. The story moves along quickly, only bogging down briefly in a few places. Kay might could have condensed some of these parts and spent more time on other character viewpoints that I would have liked to see, such as Wei Song and Shen Liu. Still, he does a great job with the principal characters of Shen Tai, Li-Mei, and Spring Rain. The reader certainly becomes attached to them and feels the weight of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Kay’s dialogue is well-crafted. His story is engaging, and his recreation of medieval China is fascinating. Through his lyrical prose, the sights and sounds, smells and tastes of this setting come alive. It’s interesting, depending on the character viewpoint, how Kay switches between the past and present tenses, and this style may be unsettling to some readers. Though as you become engrossed in his characters and story, the two tenses blend together, making the change much less noticeable.
My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Guy Gavriel Kay is the bestselling author of other novels such as A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of al-Rassan, and The Last Light of the Sun. In my opinion, he is one of the most prolific authors of the historical fantasy genre. A must-read.
*A special thanks to Elena Stokes of Wunderkind PR for asking me to read and review Under Heaven.