I’ve fallen down on the review portion of my site, but I have been reading, so it’s time to begin to catch up.
For a lover of well-written fiction, fantasy, and orientalia in general, Under Heaven is a knockout. I can appreciate Kay’s desire not to be classified as a genre writer. Though his story may closely rely on and follow historic figures and their paths, nations, and, well, history, they are not historical novels. Under Heaven is based on the 8th century Tang Dynasty and the events leading up to the An Shi Rebellion. If you enjoy even the sense of historical fiction, this is a tale for you.
The story follows Shen Tai, the second son of a renowned general of Kitai, who is given 250 prized prized horses from the Kitan Empress of the neighboring Taguran Empire to honor his work burying the dead of both sides at a battleground that is still haunted by the ghosts of the slain soldiers.
The horses themselves–coveted for their use and beauty as they are–pose a problem for Shen Tai, and involve him in struggles with politicians and the noble houses that are related to and allied with the Kitan Emperor. At the same time, the horses’ value gains him entry to their world, allowing him to form friendships with many of them, making enemies of some.
He leaves his cemetery work and makes his way toward the capital, Xinan, protected by Wei Song, a female Kanlin warrior, who stays by his side through thick and thin and several attempts on his life.
Of course, there are other plots. There’s Shen Tai’s sister Li-Mei, sent north by her older brother Shen Liu to be married off to a leader of a northern tribe in order to advance Liu’s career. That match thankfully goes awry as her escape is made possible with the help of a curious man who speaks to wolves, who considers his soul part-wolf. Then there’s Shen Tai’s first love, Spring Rain, who finds herself concubine to a courtier plotting Shen Tai’s death, and the An Li rebellion, and disease and famine, all vividly described.
Shen Tai’s story arc has personal, familial, and national repercussions, and so much danger. Loss, honor, friendship, and love come together, sometimes in a seeming slow dance, sometimes slamming together as if by magic, which also exists in this fictional land.
A man of action, thoughtful tactician, sometime scholar, awed by his heroes, Shen Tai is an exceptional, humble, and human hero in his own right.
Kay’s writing is what drew me to this novel. His command of language is wonderful, powerful, lyrical, and at the same time a perfect fit for this Chinese fantasy.
While I have other novels to review, the next novel in this series will certainly be one of them.