From the book cover…
To honor the memory of his recently deceased father, a general who led the forces of imperial Kitai in it’s last great war twenty years before, Shen Tai has spent the two years of official mourning alone at the isolated battle site, burying as many of the unnumbered dead lying there as he can. The dead are equally Kitan an their Taguran foes: there is no way to tell the bones apart, and he treats them all reverently. At night Tai can hear the ghosts moan and stir, and occasionally , when one voice falls silent, he knows it belonged to somone he has laid to rest.
Both sides respect his solitary work and take turns bringing him supplies, and it is during such a visit from a Taguran officer that Tai learns powerful forces have taken note of his vigil. The White Jade Princess Cheng-Wan, seventeenth daughter of the Emporer of Kitai, sent west after this last battle to seal the peace with Tagur, is pleased to present him with two hundred fifty Sardian horses. Tey are being given to him, she writes, in royal recognition of his courage and piety and of the honor he has done the dead.
You give a man one of the legendary Sardian horses to reward him greatly.You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him toward rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Giving him two hundrend fifty is unthinkable – a gift to overwhelm an emperor.
Tai is in deep waters. He needs to get himself – and his own emperor – back to court alive. Riding the first of the Sardian horses and bringing news of the rest, he starts east toward the glittering, dangerous capitol of Kitai, and gathers his wits for a return to his forever-altered life.
(Ed. Note: I received a copy of this book for review at no cost to me. )
I thought Under Heaven looked interesting. Set against the backdrop of ancient China, a man must deal with sabotage, assassination attempts, ghosts from his past and political maneuvering beyond his capabilities. All while attempting to extricate himself from a stroke of good fortune that may wind up killing him, or even toppling the Empire.
Sounds awesome, right?
I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical at first. The recommendation that came with the book was so strong, so passionate, that I thought it must be a sales pitch. Praise for the book designed to get into my head and sway my opinion. Or maybe the book is just that good.
So, which one was it?
Under Heaven is a great book.
I won’t claim to be an expert on any Asian history, but the world created by Guy Gavriel Kay was immersive and bursting with realism. Even the fantasy elements fit so well that reality takes a backseat. (My apologies to the history buffs.)
Fairly quickly Shen Tai picks up a few companions, and some bad news, on his journey east. He’s assigned troops to guard him, he hires some kind of ninja monk as a bodyguard, and even a poet decides to accompany him on his adventures. On the way he finds out that he has more to deal with when he gets to the capitol than being killed for his horses. I won’t go into details and spoil it for you though. Let’s just say he has family issues that he never expected to deal with.
Interesting characters, action, intrigue, and moments of humor and tragedy, where appropriate, are combined with excellent pacing and darn good writing. Halfway through the book I was hoping it would be a series, but I don’t think that’s possible. That’s the only bad thing about this book as far as I’m concerned, it’s wrapped up so well in the end that no room is left for the story to continue.
I’d love to see this book translated into an RPG. It has everything you could ask for in a game. A beautiful and realistic world filled with awesome characters. The classes! Oh my god, the character classes that would be possible. All this could just be my desire to continue the story though. I really hated to see it end.
I highly recommend Under Heaven. It is a wonderful fantasy, solidly written and beautifully descriptive.
I only wish I had more books like this to read.