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Under Heaven
Guy Gavriel Kay
Viking Canada / HarperVoyager, 580 / 573 pages

Under Heaven
Under Heaven
Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn and raised in Winnipeg. In 1974-75, he assisted Christopher Tolkien with the editing of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Guy Kay studied law at the University of Toronto and was admitted to the Bar in Ontario in 1981. He worked both as script consultant and principal writer for CBC Radio's award-winning series The Scales of Justice. He and his family live in Toronto.

Guy Gavriel Kay Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Ysabel
SF Site Review: The Last Light of the Sun
SF Site Review: The Last Light of the Sun
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With Guy Gavriel Kay
SF Site Review: Beyond This Dark House: Poems
SF Site Review: Lord of Emperors
SF Site Review: Sailing to Sarantium
SF Site Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With Guy Gavriel Kay

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Dominic Cilli

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Guy Gavriel Kay is a much celebrated author and a giant in the field of speculative fiction about whom I have heard a lot of good things, but I'd never quite gotten around to reading any of his work. I knew I was lagging sadly behind, but it was a mistake I was determined to remedy. When I was given the opportunity to review Kay's latest work Under Heaven, I jumped at the chance. For those of us who are unfamiliar with Kay's style, it's one that blends fiction and fantasy within a realm that resembles a time and place from our own history. For Under Heaven, Kay has chosen to set his story in pseudo-eighth-century China during its Tang Dynasty. For the sake of scholarship, the events depicted within the book recreate the time leading up to China's An Shi rebellion. Guy Gavriel Kay makes his methods and motivation clear to readers in an opening letter stating, "I have come to dislike the hijacking of real lives as vehicles for an author's guesswork or deliberate distortion… I prefer to shape a character inspired on Spain's El Cid or the astonishing poet Li Bai in Under Heaven, rather than pretend to have access to the mindset of the real character." Needless to say before I even read one word of Kay's Under Heaven, I liked him.

Under Heaven is a multi-layered tale that tells the story of Shen Tai. Tai is the second son of the celebrated war leader General Shen Gao. General Gao fought and won a key battle against their ancient foes, the Tagurians, near a remote mountain lake named Kaula Nor. Twenty years after the battle, Shen Tai's legendary father dies. Tai journeys to Kaula Nor to mourn the passing of his father, as tradition demands, but also takes on the impossible task of burying the bones of 40,000 dead soldiers that have remained there all those years. One spring morning, he receives news that a Tagurian princess has heard of his efforts to bury the dead and has gifted him 250 Sardian horses as a reward for his service and his honoring of the dead. The Sardian horses are the world's finest and the gifting of such a number is enough to overwhelm an emperor and instantly makes Tai a player in a political game setting off a chain of events that will see the face of China's Tang dynasty changed forever.

I was quite struck and impressed with Under Heaven. The world Kay has created is vividly realized, richly detailed and will capture your imagination right from the start. The imagery and detail the book invokes is a thing of wonder. Kay transports us to a time and place we didn't even know we ever wanted to visit and, in doing so, manages to give us a history lesson along the way. It may not be a history lesson where all the names and dates are tucked neatly in a row, but it's a more personalized history that shows us how men and women thought and behaved in eighth-century China. He pulls it off flawlessly.

Along with this superbly realized setting, Kay gives us a host of wonderful characters to wrap our hands around and drive his narrative forward. When it's all said and done Under Heaven is primarily a character-driven story and strong supporting characters are scattered throughout the novel. There are a good dozen I can mention, but for brevity's sake I'll only say that I found most of the supporting characters intriguing but the female characters, in particular, I found to be well done. Wei Song, a female Kanlin warrior and Tai's bodyguard throughout the story is a well realized character and serves as a stark counterpoint to the lives of the courtesans and princesses in ancient China. Two characters in particular, Spring Rain and Wen Jian the Precious Consort, play integral parts in the story and give us a glimpse of how women had to manage a precarious balancing act to maintain their veiled political power and influence and while keeping themselves in favor with their masters.

FInally, the element of the novel that elevates Under Heaven into the sublime is quite simply, the writing itself. While reading Under Heaven, I was immediately struck by its "feel." It had a very lyrical and poetic quality to it. After doing a little homework, I found that Kay isn't a stranger to poetry and has had a collection of poems published. It's been my experience throughout the years that when I read an author that has poetry in their background, it seems remnants arise in their fiction and almost always serve to accentuate the writing in a positive way. Under Heaven does nothing to disprove this theory and only reinforces it. This prose is elevated to levels most authors can only dream of. I'm certain that readers who take the time to explore the book will sense it as well.

Overall, Under Heaven is a masterful blending of fact, fiction and fantasy and readers around the world will be hard pressed to find better writing or a more seamless melding of the three elements. It will stay with you for days. Under Heaven is a winner in every sense of the word and it's easy to see why Guy Gavriel Kay's work is so celebrated. If you read Under Heaven, be prepared for a real treat from a giant of the genre.

Copyright © 2010 Dominic Cilli

When asked to write a third-person tag line for his reviews, Dominic Cilli farmed the work out to an actual 3rd person, his friend Neal, who in turn turned it over to a second person who then asked his third cousin to help out and this person whom Dom doesn't even know then wrote in 8th person Omniscient mode "Dom's breadth of knowledge in literature runs the gamut and is certainly not bounded by the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre. One thing I can say with certainty is that of all the people I don't know who've ever recommended books to read, Dom's recommendations are the best.


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