Hardcover: 592 pages
Publisher: Viking Canada (Mar 30 2010)
Shen Tai is the son of a general who led the forces of imperial Kitai in that empire's last war against their western enemies from Tagur, twenty years before. Forty thousand men on both sides were slain beside a remote mountain lake. General Shen Gao himself has died recently. To honour his father's memory, Tai has spent two years of official mourning alone at the battle site among the ghosts of the dead, laying to rest their unburied bones. (Click here to continue reading. There is also a link to download the first chapter.)
I've been a fan of Guy Gavriel Kay since picking up his Fionavar Trilogy many years ago...and then all of his other books. And while I may come off as a bit gushy here or that I'm pandering, if you've read any of his work, you'll know what I'm talking about; if you haven't, you really should.
The main character, Tai, thinks nothing of his role in the world and is doing his self-appointed task without any thought of additional rewards, only to honour the memory of his father. But in his past, Tai has touched other lives, again without much thought to outcome, and has gained respect and loyalty from all of those he has encountered. This plays a very large part in the unfolding of this tale, much to Tai's chagrin.
Like a master chess player, controlling both sides, Kay sets the players in motion with move/counter-move reactions. He displays that one or two men can affect an empire through selfless acts or selfish impulses; that political intrigues can be for the greater good of all people or can be for personal exaltation only.
There is an intricacy to Kay's writing; his sense of time, place, societal rules are stunningly portrayed. From the description of painted screens and silken robes, to the in-depth character-building of Emperors, Generals or just Second Sons, we're able to readily glean the images and people he's depicting in this story. By the time I reached the last hundred pages, I became a puddle of emotional goo. Partly because of what was happening in the story but also because I didn't want these people to leave my life! I was enthralled and enamored, completely.
And then GGK steps outside the story, to show it from the (ficticiously) historical point of view; of what had been written by scholars about that time versus what only we, living in the moment through the story, can determine to be "fact". I haven't really done any research on historical Chinese societies, but on learning the basis for Under Heaven was the Tang Dynasty, I Wiki'd it. I found many similarities but enough differences to make this book unique, also.
Until now, my favourite GGK work has always been Tigana, but on reading Under Heaven it may have just been deposed! This is a wonderful, fictional, history-based fantasy that I just can't say enough good things about. The only downfall for me was that it ended. Period.
For a peek inside the mind of Guy Gavriel Kay, check out his Bright Weavings, where he journals and shares info with his readers/fans. He is a widely published author that has also got his finger on the pulse of the book blogging community, which I'm sure is of personal interest to those of you that share my love of books.