Under Heaven [NOOK Book]


View our feature on Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven.

In his latest innovative novel, the award-winning author evokes the dazzling Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China in a story of honor and power.

Inspired by the glory and power of Tang...
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Under Heaven

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View our feature on Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven.

In his latest innovative novel, the award-winning author evokes the dazzling Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China in a story of honor and power.

Inspired by the glory and power of Tang dynasty China, Guy Gavriel Kay has created a masterpiece.

It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.

You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.

Wisely, the gift comes with the stipulation that Tai must claim the horses in person. Otherwise he would probably be dead already...

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Dirda
Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven isn't quite historical fiction, nor is it quite fantasy. It's set in a slightly reimagined Tang dynasty China, sometimes seems reminiscent of films like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and depicts the unimaginable consequences of a single generous gift. Most important of all, it is the novel you'll want for your summer vacation…Kay has chosen a spare, slightly courtly style, but nonetheless moves his plot along at a rapid clip. At the same time, he continually thickens his novel with appealing minor characters, thus adding to the story's overall richness as well as suggesting that much else is going on just outside our narrative field of vision.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Historical fantasist Kay (Ysabel) delivers an exquisitely detailed vision of Kitan, a land much like Tang Dynasty China. Shen Tai's father died leading troops in battle, so he spends his mourning year burying the bones of soldiers on both sides, laying their ghosts to rest. He attracts the attention of Cheng-wan, a princess of his people sent to wed one of the enemy. As her gifts make Shen Tai wealthy, an assassin kills his best friend. Shen Tai hires a bodyguard, Wei Song, to keep him alive while he figures out what to do with his riches and who wants him dead. Kay writes deftly of women who are sexually suborned by their societies, neither minimizing their constraints nor denying their agency, and the complex intrigues of poets, prostitutes, ministers, and soldiers evolve into a fascinating, sometimes bloody, and entirely believable tale. (May)
"A shimmering novel...a beautiful, compulsive read."
Miami Herald
"Kay is peerless in plucking elements from history and using them to weave a wholly fantastical tale that feels like a translation of some freshly unearthed scroll from a time we have yet to discover…Lovers of historical fiction should also give Under Heaven a try."
The Huffington Post
"A magnificent epic, flawlessly crafted, that draws the reader in like a whirlwind and doesn't let go."
"Completely transporting." --(SALON.com's Laura Miller, on NPR's Weekend Edition)
Library Journal
To honor the death of his father, an Imperial general, Shen Tai spends two years burying the dead at a battle site on the empire's border. When he receives a gift of 250 coveted Sardian horses from former enemies, he travels homeward to seek an audience with the emperor, knowing that the gift has not only conferred great power upon him but terrible danger as well. Just as he re-created an alternate Renaissance Italy in Tigana, the author of "The Fionavar Tapestry" series evokes the subtle politics and careful social intercourse of eighth-century Tang dynasty China. VERDICT Meticulously researched yet seamlessly envisioned, the characters and culture present a timeless tale of filial piety and personal integrity. Highly recommended for all collections and particularly for fans of the author's distinctive approach to fantasy.
The Barnes & Noble Review

To the short but piquant catalogue of perfumed, heady fantasies by Westerners set in an Oriental milieu -- those from Ernest Bramah, Barry Hughart, Liz Williams and E. Hoffman Price are prominent -- must now be added Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Kay has set his novel in the empire of Kitai -- an accurate, albeit transmogrified stand-in for our historical China. The author has been publicly adamant about the superiority of imaginary venues over their realworld templates, using “the prism of fantasy to treat the matter of history,” and his hybrid mode generally repays the reader. Tangibility and verisimilitude abound, with a leavening of the supernatural and occult.

The hero of Under Heaven is one Shen Tai, a figure loosely modeled on the poet Li Po. Son of an important dead general, Shen Tai prefers verse and philosophy, although he is skilled enough for self-defense in the martial arts known as Kanlin. Having secluded himself from court politics for two years in the mountains, Shen Tai rejoins the world to find his beloved Spring Rain in the arms of another, a price on his head, and a gift of 250 rare horses attached to his name, more like a curse than a boon. (Recall Twain’s “The £1,000,000 Bank-Note.”) Accompanied by female bodyguard Wei Song, Shen Tai sets out for the capital of Xinan to reclaim his legacy.

This stately, elegaic, evocative tale, which alternates its sections among the prominent personages in Shen Tai’s life, is suffused mainly with a melancholy gravitas. Courtly politesse and Machiavellian politics abound. By the closing chapters, Shen Tai’s story has receded into legend, leaving the characters of this tragedy somewhat ghostly. What’s missing is the historical Li Po’s bawdy, carefree insouciance and adherence to art above all. Amidst the somber forests, battlefields and bloody palaces, the plotting and counter-plotting, some drunken, nose-thumbing irreverance might have played well, and bolstered Shen Tai’s stated adherence to a balanced spiritual path.

--Paul Di Filippo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101187005
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 4/27/2010
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 608
  • Sales rank: 66,062
  • File size: 936 KB

Meet the Author

Guy Gavriel Kay was born and raised in Canada. He lives in Toronto, although he does most of his writing in Europe. His novels include ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’ trilogy (described by ‘Interzone’ as ‘the only fantasy work… that does not suffer by comparison with ‘The Lord of the Rings’), ‘Tigana’ and ‘A Song for Arbonne’.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 84 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 85 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 30, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    For Readers of GG Kay

    Characters not so finely drawn as in previous books. You will have to read the epilogue for closure on some characters. Still it is impossible to not get sucked into the maelstrom of the multiple layers of story line whirling through the pages. As always, if something in the book niggles at your mind, hang on to it. It will come back to a pertinent character or story line for resolution. Mr. Kay continues to write as a gourmet cook prepares a 7 course meal. You will have flavors and textures that will continue to to tease your mind well after the book has been read. Thank you, Mr. Kay. I will continue to attempt to have your books in hand on the day they come out.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 27, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    superb historical epic

    Second son Shen Tai has spent the last two years as the only living person amidst the forty thousand dead, burying the bones of the dead from both sides. He does this to honor his late father, Kitai Empire Left Side Commander of the Pacified West General Shen Gao who died here while leading his side to victory.

    Tai's endeavor is rewarded with the unexpected stunning gift of 250 Sardian "Heavenly Horses", the greatest steeds on the planet. To obtain his gift, he must come in person to the Sardian Court of their former enemy so he leaves the ghostly mountain battlefield for the capital of the Kitai Empire, Xinan. Tai knows how valuable they are, but soon learns others agree as assassination attempts to send him to his late father begin even without his claiming the horses yet.

    Under Heaven is a superb historical epic that builds off an ancient Chinese dynasty to tell a beautiful tale of power abused, betrayal, honor and love. The secondary characters enhance a strong sense of what the hero is going through as the audience will feel we accompany Shen Tai on his travels. Guy Gavriel Kay provides a deep saga of a hero rewarded and consequently assaulted for honoring his father by interring the remains of valiant soldiers from both sides to their ghosts can silently rest forever.

    Harriet Klausner

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 28, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Fantasy Masterpiece

    In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay has created a masterpiece of an Oriental culture, that of the land of Kitai. It relates a time of intrigue, political maneuvering, rebellion and change. The book's hero, Shen Tai, is suddenly thrust into this environment and must adapt to survive.

    The book opens in a remote location called Kuala Nor. It is the site of an ancient battle where thousands of men were killed, their bleached bones still hungering for honor. Shen Tai spends two years at this site, during his time of mourning for his father who was a famous General. He spends his days far from all he knows and those he loves, burying the bones of the dead soldiers, both Kitan and those of the enemy force. Although he expects nothing from this labor, it does not go unnoticed. At the end of his time, two events happen. First is that an assassin, sent by enemies back at the Kitan royal court, attempts to kill him. Second, a Princess, who is the daughter of the Kitan Emperor but who was sent to a bordering country in a political marriage, makes a life-changing gift to Shen Tai.

    Horses are the lifeblood of the armies and of trade. Most valued of all are Sardian horses. One is more than most men can ever hope to attain. The Princess sends Tai two hundred and fifty of these magnificent horses. This is a life-changing gift; a gift that will echo down the ages. Shen Tai must find a way to get to the Emperor's Court and give this gift to him for national prestige and honor. There are many who will try to stop him and gain the horses for their own gain. The Court is full of rival factions, each vying for favor and the possibility of future honors as the Emperor weakens with age. In addition to the political relationships, there is also the effect of love. Men do anything for the women they love, but at the same time the women also are caught up in the intricate games of statesmanship that are the daily fare of Court life. These love relationships are finely honed and the reader must read more to find out what will happen in the rivalries that exist between men over love.

    Kay has written a masterpiece. It straddles the genres of historical fiction and fantasy and in doing so, takes the reader on a fascinating and engaging journey. The characters are finely drawn and their intricate relationships are revealed slowly to the reader. The political intrigue and themes of honor, entitlement and military maneuvering is presented in a complex story that leaves the reader with a sigh of contentment as they turn the last page. This book is recommended for all readers.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 1, 2010

    Tang Dynasty

    "Under Heaven" is a well-crafted story of the Tang Dynasty of eighth-century China. It is fast-paced and intricately layered with political intrigue and treachery that you need to read it a second time to fully grasp all the subtleties and undercurrents that are taking place. There are places where the story becomes repetitive but that just gives the reader a chance to sort through and absorb what they have just read.
    Although "Under Heaven" is fiction, it is still an excellent history lesson and one that I found difficult to put down.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 23, 2011

    Exquisite beauty

    There's only one problem with this book... it ends. As with all Kay's craftings, Under Heaven has such elegant, lyrical phrasing one might weep. I fight to make his books last, reading one chapter a day, otherwise I'd stay home from work and just finish in one sitting!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 21, 2011

    Masterfully written - a must read for those with a love of the Orient!

    Guy Gavriel Kay's many books fill a special shelf in my library - I only keep books I plan to re-read over and over and I have re-read all of GGK's books several times. It's amazing how 5 or 10 years in personal growthcompletely change your view of the characters or their actions. I am thrilled with his new book as he has created a totally new side of his world. Everything is different, he moves his characters around a giant chessboard and you cannot guess the next move. His style of writing, which I thoroughly enjoy, makes reading a pleasure, sometimes at warp speed because you are dying to know what happens next and then sometimes slowly to savor how he strings his words together to discribe the way a woman's hair is held in place with two pins (or weapons). The richness is in the details. I read it twice in two weeks, loved it and I hope he revisits this land again. Until then, I have my shelf of his books that I reread every so often and surprisingly, learn something new each time - or is it just that I'm older and understand men and women better. Whichever, please write me another "Under Heaven".

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 17, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Run, don't walk, to pick up your copy of Under Heaven...

    I have been a fan of this author since the original release of the Fionavar Tapestry series and continue to believe Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the best contemporary fantasy authors we are privileged to read. Under Heaven proves that again, with an amazing descent into a world based on the Tang Dynasty. The story introduces you to one man's idea to honor his father, which becomes a catalyst to change in his life and a window into the changing dynamics of an aging emperor and his desperately maneuvering court. It's a world where beauty and grace are so admired that even to pass exams to become a civil servant in the empire you need to be able to communicate your knowledge by poetry that is carefully rendered in exquisite calligraphy. If you have read GGK then you know you are in for an imaginative, smoothly fulfilling story. If you haven't, well all I can say is that I'm continually saddened by the lack of people who have heard of this fabulous author. If you are looking for something beyond the stereotypical then this is your author to try!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2013

    Great story telling

    I was amazed by the skillful writing of Guy Gavriel Kay, I would reccomend Under Heaven to anyone who is interested in epic fantasies. Great read

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2013

    just lovely

    I've always enjoyed Kay's historically based novels (probably because I teach college history) and was delighted when he broadened his scope to include China. My second dive into this novel was just as enjoyable as the first one--beautiful characters, masterful plotting, and the sort of language that takes your breath away. Don't miss the sort-of sequel (but not really--there's a gap of several centuries between the two) in River of Stars.

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  • Posted February 19, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    The finest work of fiction to come from the pen of Guy Gavriel Kay

    When I sit down to immerse myself in a book, the overall narrative style is important in drawing me into the author's world, but it's generally the sophistication of the overall plot and the strength of the characters that makes me want to stay there. As such, I don't usually wax poetic about the lyrical language of a story, the smoothly coursing flow of words, or the layered beauty of sentences and paragraphs.

    Well, this is one of those exceptionally notable exceptions.

    Under Heaven is, far and away, the finest work of fiction to come from the pen of Guy Gavriel Kay. It's a book that is perfect in almost every respect, so much so that I was sorry to turn that last page and lay it down, finished. It is definitely a long book, and one best enjoyed at a leisurely pace, but it could have continued on for another five or six hundred pages and I would not have voiced a word of complaint.

    In terms of plotting, it's an odd tale, and one that requires a unique sort of patience on behalf of the reader. The story at the forefront of the tale initially seems a little light, given the length of the book, but the story behind that is so deep, so heavily layered, that you don't quite realize precisely how much is going on until Kay shakes us out of our complacency and thrusts us into the final part of the book. Most of the book revolves around Shen Tai, second son to a celebrated general of the imperial army, who has spent the last two years burying bones and laying souls to rest around a mountain lake to honour his father's passing. In honour of his efforts, he finds himself granted a gift of impossible value - 250 Sardian horses - that makes him a major player in the political upheaval that threatens to bring about and end to a dynasty.

    Along his journey to the capital in answer to a summons from the Emperor, Tai is targeted by assassins, wooed by rebels, betrayed by his elder brother, loved by his protector, befriended by the generation's greatest poet, and drawn into a game of politics that he's never wanted to play. He is forced to rise above his station, to demand the respect accorded to his honours, and to play a shocking role in the transition of an empire. He is a remarkable character, an admirable young man to whom the reader can almost relate - if only he weren't so spectacularly worthy of the highest esteem.

    What makes the story so exquisite is the fact that the characters surrounding Tai are so well developed, they they're worthy of being main characters in their own right. In fact, his sister's magical journey is a story all on its own, escalating a young woman to royalty and shipping her off to a barbarous marriage, only to see her rescued by a man more wolf than man. Wei Song, Kanlin warrior and protector to Tai, is another strong woman, one who is largely responsible for seeing him to his destiny, while Wen Jian, Precious Consort of the Emperor, is a woman as dangerous as she is beautiful, and almost dizzying in her grasp of the game of politics.

    Like I said, it's a long story, told at a leisurely pace, and narrated almost exclusively in the present tense. It makes for an unusual read, almost too literate for the genre, but the reader's patience is more than amply rewarded. The subtlety of the telling is exceeded only by the intricacy of the schemes and plots, with a myriad of small events commingling to change the course of history.

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  • Posted August 16, 2011

    Excellent Exploration of a Chinese Fantasy Setting

    I greatly enjoyed the story with all its intrigue and interweaving story-lines. It is obvious the author spent a good amount of time trying to understand the Tang Dynasty in order to better create his own Kitai. I would love to see him spend more time in this setting, even if it's not a story with the same characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2011

    I love reading Guy Gavriel Kay.

    This is one of his best books. Complex and thoughtful.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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