Under Heaven
by Guy Gavriel Kay

Review by
Robert W. Enstrom

ROC, New York: 2010

573 pages May 2010


Are you interested in traveling to a China that may have been, a fantastic history of a thousand years ago?

Amid the ten thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.

They would listen to flute or pipa music and declaim poetry, test each other with jibes and quotes, sometimes find a private room with a scented, silken woman, before weaving unsteadily home after the dawn drums sounded curfew's end, to sleep away the day instead of studying.

Here in the mountains, alone in hard, clear air by the waters of Kuala Nor, far to the west of the imperial city, beyond the borders of the empire, even, Tai was in a narrow bed by darkfall, under the first brilliant stars, and awake at sunrise.

In spring and summer the birds woke him. This was a place where thousands upon thousands nested noisily: fishhawks and cormorants, wild geese and cranes. The geese made him think of friends far away. Wild geese were a symbol of absence: in poetry, in life. Cranes were fidelity, another matter.

In winter ...

Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven gives you the chance to make that journey in the company of a young man named Shen Tai, who is in search of an understanding of his own place under Heaven. As a young adult, he first follows his father's profession in the army, then, after an unsettling experience with the supernatural, tries the life of a monk. When this proves unsuitable, he studies for the exacting civil service examinations, perhaps to follow his brother's path in life. But events intervene. His father passes away and he must chose an appropriate way to spend the two years of mandatory mourning.

We join his story at this point in his life, toward the end of the two-year mourning period. The unusual means he has chosen to mourn his father sweeps him up into the greater conflicts of the vast China of his birth. His father, a retired general, had regretted certain aspects of his service, and one of these regrets was for the dead of a battlefield that lies in the uneasy no-man's-land between two warring states. Because of its remote location and the contested nature of the border, the dead of this battlefield lie unburied.

As a tribute to his father's memory, Shen Tai spends nearly two years on this forgotten field of battle, caring for the remains of the fallen, regardless of which army they belonged to in life. This act of remembrance and sympathy brings him great rewards and even greater danger. The rulers of the enemy state notice his activities and they reward him with a gift so valuable that it puts his life in danger and brings him to the attention of the powerful in his own country.

The novel recounts Shen Tai's efforts to stay alive after this sudden gift — a gift of not only monetary value, but of political and military value as well.

The China of Shen Tai's struggles, is a might-have-been China — perhaps a fantasy land that exists only on the pages of this book. It is indeed an interesting China, where the supernatural lies not far beneath the surface. Strangely, it is Shen Tai's acts of sympathy that bring him into contact with this other world. First, when as a military man, he cares for the fate of two unmilked goats — an act that leads him to interrupt a dark ritual.  And later, in his care for the unburied dead.  Both these acts have unforeseen consequences that shape the future of Shen Tai's life, and the lives of those close to him.

If you would like to explore the fate of this one man, in the uncharted sea of this far away China, then you'll have to read Under Heaven.


© 2010 Robert W. Enstrom

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