Review: Under Heaven

Posted: August 4, 2010 by in Books that are Mediocre (3/5 single_star) Meta: Guy Gavriel Kay, Fantasy

A soldier-poet in a world where connections and subtly are everything, Shen Tai expects to lead an ordinary life. After the death of his father, he spends the required two year mourning period burying the bones of a twenty-year-old conflict in the mountains. His father was the former general of the Kitai army, and had spent many an evening lamenting that fruitless battle. No one else could be bothered to bury the dead because the angry ghosts of a hundred thousand men scared them away, but Tai is doing this to honor his dead father, despite the danger, and works those years easing the spirits of the former soldiers into their eternal rest.

Tai’s efforts, however solitary, do not go unnoticed. The White Jade Princess of Cheng-wan (seventeenth daughter of the exalted Emperor Taizu and now consort of the Emperor of Tagur) sends him a gift as appreciation for his courage and persistence: horses. But these aren’t just any horses. They are the best cavalry horses in the world from Sardia, coveted by kings. And does she send him a couple, which would make him rich? No, she sends him 250, which will make him not only fabulously wealthy, but also a target for assassination among his own people. For a man who commands 250 Heavenly Horses in Kitai can sway emperors and armies.

Guy Gavriel Kay is known for his historical fiction, and UNDER HEAVEN (Amazon) is his most recent contribution, this time creating an alternate Earth for his version of the ancient Chinese Tang Dynasty. The story starts out slow and doesn’t ever really speed up, although the tension is enough to make it feel like it’s faster than it really is. The pace isn’t unlike James Clavell’s SHO-GUN (Amazon), since he has a big story to tell, and a large cast, but still wants to keep a usually epic story on a personal level.

Kay is a beautiful writer, but he’s also a poet at heart, which can be a good-bad thing when writing fiction. It means that he’s very careful with his prose, and it flows superbly with lovely metaphors and imagery; his switches between viewpoints is subtle and elegant. But it also means that there’s poetry in UNDER HEAVEN. Usually this irritates me. I’m the kind of reader who will skip songs and poems in fantasy books because although they add ‘flavor’ to a setting, they’re usually pointless and slow down the story. However, poets and poetry in Ninth Dynasty Kitai are apparently very important (ok, I admit, it’s probable he didn’t make that part up, but still…). In fact, a student taking examinations for the civil service has to be able to write answers in poem form, whether they be military, policy, or social commentary, with the scores based not only on the answer but also the quality of the poem and calligraphy. I rolled my eyes at that one. But by the end I had to admit that it really added a lot to the story.

Tai starts out unassuming, but as we get to know him, we learn that he’s no ordinary man. And he must use all his skills to traverse the deadly maze he finds himself in when he’s gifted a treasure that only royalty would dare to give. There’s the famous poet, the Banished Immortal, an unlikely friend during Tai’s crisis–master of not only poetry, but also of wine and women. There’s Tai’s sister Li-Mei who’s sent as an unwilling bride to a northern barbarian chieftain, whose story takes a surprising turn. And there are so many other equally fascinating and complex characters, who have depth despite their periphery.

In UNDER HEAVEN Guy Gavriel Kay builds a world of complexity and beauty, writing on the verge of pretentiousness, but without quite falling over the edge.

Kay builds a world of complexity and beauty, writing on the verge of pretentiousness, but without quite falling over the edge. His themes of shaping one’s own destiny coupled with how decisions affect our lives is explained rather blatantly, but he does it with such suave charm you can’t help but allow it despite the obvious philosophical attempts. Another downside, Kay hints at magic, showing the results without ever giving any real information. There’s a lot of potential there, but he wastes it on a side-plot that doesn’t have bearing on the story as a whole.

Then we get to the last fifty pages and everything turns into a big narrative malarkey.

Like my review on K.J. Parker’s THE FOLDING KNIFE (EBR Review), I don’t care how beautiful your prose is, how fascinating your characters, how amazing your world, if you mess up the ending you mess up the entire novel. Kay spends 500 pages painstakingly building a world and its characters, the intrigue and plot, but it’s pretty much washed out by the time we get to the resolution. It doesn’t bother me that the climax takes the plot in a different direction–Kay makes some twists that completely change the landscape and it’s brilliantly done. But then Tai turns apathetic. Other characters make choices that don’t quite jive with how they’re written. Yet other characters’ stories disappear without explanation. It was more irritating than poetry.

By the end Kay must have gotten to a point where he was ready to finish the novel, so he did, wrapping everything up in a tidy little bow. There’s no real conclusion. No exploration about the consequences of events that matches the care he took with crafting the rest of the story. Instead, there’s an aloof summary with a ‘and thus we see the results when we choose to stay the night at this town’s inn instead of the next, and completely miss an opportunity at a different life.’ Philosophical indeed. UNDER HEAVEN should have spared a few more pages so Kay could make good on his promises; unfortunately, it seems he couldn’t be bothered.

  • Recommended Age: 18+
  • Language: Some but not much
  • Violence: Yes, and it's moderately graphic
  • Sex: There's a fair amount throughout the novel


  • Raethe says:

    Vanessa and I have already had this discussion over on TWG, but I thought that readers might be interested to hear another opinion on the ending. So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, here are my thoughts:

    The ending honestly didn't bug me when I read it. Upon reflection, while I see where Nessa's coming from, I also see why Kay did it the way he did. The story that he was telling had two main threads: the thread dealing with the Wen fanily and the one dealing with the horses. Both of those were dealt with as fully as they needed to be, I thought, and as far as I was concerned the story was over when those two plotlines were resolved.

    Those parts of the ending that were summarized would have been impossible not to mention, but dealing with them in full may have diluted the novel's focus. A full recounting of the summarized stuff would have been fun, but beyond the scope of the story, I think.

    • Vanessa says:

      The prose is lovely from beginning to end, there is no question about that. But prose will not fix a story arc that offers certain promises, but decides he's gone too long to finish it properly. It is like a rainbow in the mountains: it starts on the ground, then ends abruptly on the mountain-side, ruining the overall affect of what you see. I don't doubt that I'm being too harsh and overreacting, but it doesn't change that UNDER HEAVEN's ending is an injustice to an otherwise perfectly good book.

    • Vanessa says:

      (Rainbows are still beautiful in the mountains, I'm not saying they aren't…perhaps that wasn't the best metaphor…)

  • Eric Leblanc says:

    I agree with Raethe. According to this review, this book went from great prose to mediocre, simply because Vanessa didn't like the ending? I find this harsh, but I'm not here to change the reviewer's way of doing things, that is her right to see it this way. However I want to give another point of view to other potential readers.

    My impression of the ending is that Kay didn't really care about what was happening on the larger scale, it was not the point of his book. According to his philosophical comments towards the end, you realize that it's more about how events could change someone’s life and have impacts on a larger scale. On what side the balance tips is not important at all, in the grand scheme of things.

    It's like looking at an history books with a microscope, where you see small events happening like ripples in a lake. A thousand years after, nobody really cares who won that war that year. It is simply a recount of events.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *