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Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Blurb On The Back:

You gave a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave 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. But that is what Shen Tai is given by the bartered Kitan Princess: not so much a gift as very possibly a death warrant ...

For 2 years Shen Tai has honoured the memory of his dead feather by burying the bones of those who fell at Kuala Nor (a battle won by his father). Word of his deeds has spread around Kitan and Tanguran people and as a reward, the Kitan wife of the Tanguran emperor gifts him with 250 Sardian horses – the most prized horses in the world.

The gift is one that could make Shen Tai’s fortune or seal his own death warrant because during his absence, the politics of the Kitan empire have become unstable and civil war is threatened. As Shen Tai journeys to the Ta-Ming Palace to inform the emperor of his good fortune, he discovers that he must also navigate a political minefield where the stakes include not only his life but also the lives of those he cares about.

Kay draws on 8th century Chinese history for this beautifully written epic fantasy, which incorporates court intrigue, sibling rivalry and warring nations.

Shen Tai is an interesting character. He’s been in seclusion for 2 years, having left his exams for an official position in the imperial court, and his only real company has been the ghosts of the dead. The Kitan princess’s gift changes his world in every conceivable way – giving him the possibility of a position beyond that of a court official and throwing him into the heart of a complicated court battle that his absence makes him unprepared for. The way he re-familiarises himself with the political situation allows for his own growth while introducing the reader to the complicated world Kay has created.

Yet beautifully written though the book is, there are instances where it feels over-written – Kay including scenes from the point of view of characters who play no real role in the proceedings and whose perspective adds little. Also, in contrast to the slow build up of the first two thirds of the novel which set up characters and situation, the final third is rushed and superficial with the pay off coming in a series of scenes with twists that are a little too obvious.

For all this though it is an absorbing read and Kay has a wonderful eye for detail and character, particularly the portrayal of loss and compromise. Having not previously read Kay’s work, I’m now off in search of his back catalogue.

The Verdict:

This is a beautifully written fantasy with a complicated storyline and a wide cast of characters and Kay has a fine eye for depicting loss and compromise. Saying that, there were some parts that felt redundant and for me the final third contained a rushed pay-off that was at odds with the leisurely build up of Shen Tai’s return to the normal world. Despite this, I found it an absorbing and moving read and am definitely going to check out Kay’s other work.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the free copy of this book.

Cross-posted to books, bookworming, and fantasywithbite.

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