Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mini book review: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

I like big books with intricate plots. Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay has 567 pages (hardcover) and a fairly large cast of characters involved in court intrigue, power struggles, rebellion, honor and poetry.  I do sort of wish I had liked Under Heaven more.

Second son Shen Tai has gone beyond the borders of the empire of Kitai, living in solitude as he works to bury tens of thousands of dead soldiers and lay their ghosts to rest.  He does this to honor his own deceased father.  At first it was terrifying, bleak and alone, ghosts howling and crying at night and no one but bones for company during the day.  But he keeps at his unending, impossible job and, by bringing peace to a few souls, begins to gain some for himself.  This solitary existence is rocked, however, when a messenger brings word that he is being gifted with two hundred and fifty Sardian horses - the most valuable and incredible horses in the world, a gift of inconceivable wealth.  This gift, ostensibly to honor Tai for the work he is doing, thrusts him back into court life as the emperor takes notice of him and lesser mandarins seethe with resentment.  As power players jostle for position around him, and assassins circle, trying to gain control of the horses, Tai must learn who his friends are and how to move in society again.

Set in a slightly fantastical version of China's Tang Dynasty, Under Heaven has hand-to-hand combat, concubines, evil shamans, sexy lychee nut eating and drunken poets.  Kay writes at a remove, however, so that I never felt a connection with any of the characters.  Perhaps part of it is that honor and decorum played such a large part in the characters' lives and the prose is designed to reflect those qualities.  Still, I had been hoping to be drawn in more than I was and, as such, Under Heaven left me a little cold.

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