09 July 2012

Under Heaven - Guy Gavriel Kay

The Blurb: Inspired by the glory of Tang Dynasty China in the eighth century, Guy Gavriel Kay melds history and the fantastic into something both powerful and emotionally compelling. Under Heaven is a novel on the grandest narrative scale, encompassing the intimate details of individual lives in an unforgettable time and place.

Shen Tai is the son of a general who led the forces of imperial Kitai in that empire's last war against their western enemies from Tagur, twenty years before. Forty thousand men on both sides were slain beside a remote mountain lake. General Shen Gao himself has died recently. To honour his father's memory, Tai has spent two years of official mourning alone at the battle site among the ghosts of the dead, laying to rest their unburied bones.

One spring morning, he learns that others have taken note of his vigil. The White Jade Princess in Tagur is pleased to present him with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses, given, she writes, in recognition of his courage, and honour done to the dead.

I bought this book on a sale a while ago, mostly because of the cover. It's quite unique and stood out well between the other sale offerings. I plopped the book onto my bookcase and promptly forgot about it. On Friday, while admiring my collection, I saw the book and thought I should at least give it a bash. And am I glad I did!

I love my Epic Fantasy. I love the traditional European setting with Knights, castles, Kings and chivalry. It's like a comfortable coat. This isn't quite like that. I know nothing about the Tang Dynasty of China. If I hear that the book is in an eastern setting, I immediately think about ninjas and samurai'sClich├ęd I know, but I cannot help myself.

Mr. Kay does an amazing job making the new and really strange easily understandable. The whole culture in the book is quite different from what I'm used to, with respect and standing sacrosanct and the Emperor the ruler ordained by heaven. Public Service is the highest honour, with difficult exams. Poetry is everywhere, and how a person conducts himself in the vicinity of his betters can lead to his death if he's not careful. It's a strange, mystical world and it's amazing.  

The characters are brilliantly done. Shen Tai - the POV - spends a lot of time in his own head, and this helps making his decisions and motivations clear to the reader. It's not like he can scream and shout or think out loud, as the culture in the book won't allow it. The nuances that comes through in a persons body language becomes important, every written word gets scrutinised for extra meanings. The depth here is amazing.

I usually hate poetry in a book, but here it fits. A normal person in the book can quote the greats, and the Public Servants must be fluent in it. It's presence is everywhere, but it does not overshadow or draw attention away from the story.

Everyone should read this book. It's amazingly done and easily the best thing I've read the whole year.


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