Review by Robert J. Wiersema for The Globe and Mail. Reproduced with kind permission.
Shen Tai is the second son of General Shen Gao, one of the most distinguished military leaders of the Kitan Empire. Following his father’s death, Tai spends the two years of his official mourning on the isolated shores of Kuala Nor, the site of one of his father’s greatest triumphs 20 years before. The ground there is littered with the remains of 40,000 men, equally split between Kitan and their perennial foes to the west, the Taguran Empire. Tai spends his mourning period burying the dead, putting their ghosts to rest, one grave, one body at a time, Kitan indistinguishable in death from Taguran, “tangled together, strewn or piled, skulls and white bones.”
As his mourning period comes to a close, Tai is brought back to the world by two visitors in the same day. The first is a Taguran soldier, who brings him tidings from the court of the Kitan’s traditional enemies. The White Jade Empress, in “royal recognition … of courage and piety, and honour done the dead of Kuala Nor,” has given him 250 Sardian horses, the most precious steeds known to man. So precious that “you gave a man one … to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him toward rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.” The gift makes Tai a marked man, and thrusts him into the perilous intricacies of life from his silent observation of death.
The second visitor is an assassin, trained in the ways of the Kanlin warriors, who nearly takes Tai’s life hours later. Not only does Tai now face the consequences of the Empress’s gift, he must reckon with the fact that someone wanted him dead even before the gift of the horses was known.
With that, the reader is swept, utterly and effortlessly, into Under Heaven, the stunning new novel from Toronto writer Guy Gavriel Kay. Returning to the blend of history and subtle fantasy that characterized previous novels, including Tigana and The Sarantine Mosaic, Kay this time immerses himself and his readers in eighth-century, Tang Dynasty China, shifted a quarter-turn to become Kitai.
The novel, which comes as a result of more than five years of work, is clearly well researched, but it doesn’t labour under historical veracity or trivia. Kitai bursts into life fully rendered, with its own clearly delineated systems and traditions, values and beliefs.
It is a broad, vivid canvas, which Kay anchors through careful attention to his characters. Tai, for example, continually develops and surprises. His vigil at Kuala Nor gives the reader an impression of piety and thoughtfulness; the full importance of the swords with which he meditates and practises each morning is only revealed when one learns of the Kanlin warriors, and the time he spent training with them.
His student days, which are highlighted in the novel’s opening pages, are contrasted with his short time in the army, which is revealed fully later, and which has repercussions that shape his destiny and the destiny of the empire. It’s a beautifully balanced dance of careful revelation: Kay holds nothing back (and in fact, the book’s opening pages should be reread after finishing the novel as a whole, to see just how many seeds the author plants there), but Tai’s character builds imperceptibly and incrementally, as one might discover facts and quirks about a stranger.
Similarly, other characters reveal depths, from the Taguran soldier whom Tai befriends to the courtesan he loves and loses to the exiled poet who becomes an intimate and adviser to the Kanlin warrior dedicated to his safety. Through these and countless other characters, Kay describes and inhabits an entire world and the culture that shapes them.
Under Heaven is virtually everything a reader could want in a book: a thrilling adventure, a love story, a coming-of-age tale, a military chronicle, a court-intrigue drama, a tragedy and on and on. It is a sumptuous feast of storytelling, a beautifully written tale with a beating, breaking heart at its core that will have readers in tears by its final pages.
It is also a reminder that Guy Gavriel Kay – too often overlooked, if not scorned, by the Canadian literati for his genre leanings – is one of the most gifted storytellers of our age.