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Under Heaven    by Guy Gavriel Kay order for
Under Heaven
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Order:  USA  Can
Roc, 2010 (2010)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Though I enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay's excellent foray into urban fantasy in his previous novel, Ysabel, I still prefer his historical fantasies in which he distills the essence of a past era, serving it up as a new, exciting and unexpected alternate history. So I was thrilled to open Under Heaven and enter Kitai, Kay's interpretation of Tang Dynasty China.

Shen Tai, once a soldier, once in training as a Kanlin Warrior, and once a student for the civil service in the capital of Xinan, has reacted in a unique way to his father's death. Though General Shen Gao was honored for his victory in war, his memories of it were 'a source of pride and sorrow intermingled, marking him forever after.'

Because of his father's sorrow, Shen Tai has chosen to spend his years of mourning at Kuala Nor amongst ghosts in the mountains 'beyond the borders of the empire', burying both Kitan and Taguran soldiers ('Forty thousand dead in one battle'). Shen Tai has no hope of completing his self-appointed task. 'But if you couldn't do everything, did that mean you did nothing?' He has won the respect of the border garrisons of both armies, who take turns bringing him supplies. But before Shen Tai's mourning is over, the world intrudes on his solitude in surprising ways

First, Taguran captain Bytsan brings him a letter from Princess Cheng-wan, 'the first imperial bride ever granted by Kitai to Tagur'. With her royal husband's permission, the Princess offers Shen Tai two hundred and fifty of the invaluable Sardian horses, a perilous gift - 'You give a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows ... and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.' Fortunately, Bytsan arranges to make it known that the horses are to be delivered only to Shen Tai in person, thus increasing his security.

The second arrival is a plump old student friend, Chou Yan, accompanied by a Kanlin Warrior and bearing urgent news. His companion turns out to be an assassin. They are followed by another Kanlin Warrior, Wei Song, sent by Shen Tai's lover, courtesan Spring Rain. Now one of First Minister Wen Zhou's concubines, she anticipated danger for Shen Tai from Wen Zhou's jealousy and took a great personal risk to aid him.

Much has changed in Xinan since Shen Tai left. Wen Zhou's cousin Jian is Emperor Taizu's Precious Consort and has displaced the Empress at his side. Shen Tai's ambitious brother Liu is now Wen Zhou's principal advisor. There is an uneasy balance of power in the Empire between Wen Zhou and once-barbarian military governor An Li, 'A man everyone watched. And feared.'

Shen Tai makes his way back to Xinan as quickly as he can, with Wei Song at his side, fending off assassination attempts - and perilous negotiations for the Sardian horses - at every stage of the journey. En route he and Wei Song are joined by the famed poet Sima Zian, known as The Banished Immortal. He adds wise counsel, good company, witty verse, and a skilled sword arm to their endeavor.

In parallel with Shen Tai's quest, we join his beloved sister Li-Mei on a strange adventure that requires all her courage. Her brother Liu made arrangements for Li-Mei, of which their father would never have approved, despite their political advantages. She is helped by a foreign prince, horribly altered by shamans, whom her brother Shen Tai had saved from an even worse fate when he served in a cavalry posting beyond the Long Wall.

When Wen Zhou's actions overset the Empire's fragile balance and ignite a conflagration of civil war, Shen Tai's horses become even more important and he has hard decisions to make.

At the end of the book, Guy Gavriel Kay tells readers that 'this is a work of fiction spun out of and through history', something that he does remarkably well and that no other author has equalled. Kay ties off his exceptional tale in surprising ways. If you read only one fantasy novel this year, make it Under Heaven - Kay's take on the cost of war will stay with you, as will his brilliant characters and outstanding story.

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