Title: Under Heaven
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Published: 2011; Penguin Canada
Date Started: October 3, 2012 Date Finished: November 23, 2012
Worthy of Note: I bought Under Heaven quite a long while after Guy Gavriel Kay was recommended to me. I had never read anything of his before, and had not heard anything beyond “you should read his books.” I stood in front of his works at the bookstore and mulled over the synopses on the back covers, and mulled and mulled. Finally I picked Under Heaven because it seemed to involve a lot of manly man angst, which is one of my favourite things. Also, Under Heaven is officially the maximum size of book I can carry in my bag. I am currently searching out a new bag.
Amid 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.
This is going to be a really difficult review. The only thing I really want to say about this book is go get it. Right now. If I have to say anything else about it, I would say do not look up any plot points or reviews until you’ve read it. One of the biggest pleasures about reading this book was that I had no idea what was coming next, which lead to great and devastating surprises.
Having nullified the rest of this review by telling you not to read it, what remains will be brief, vague, and full of praise, if a bit twitchy and standoffish.
Under Heaven is one of those tricky fantasy books that has none of the hallmarks of what lots of people consider to be fantasy: no magic, no otherworldly creatures. I hate to use the term “low fantasy” because it inherently sounds inferior to “high fantasy,” which is rarely ever the case. Under Heaven is the story of men and women trying to reconcile their places in society after their lives have been upheaved for better or worse. The characters are wonderfully complex and flawed, and their development drives the plot as much as the action.
One thing that set this book apart for me was its setting. Based heavily on eighth century China, Under Heaven had me out of familiar waters from the start. I read a lot of sword-and-sorcercy type novels, and most of those have a medieval Europe-inspired setting. Even small things like clothes and customs I had to pay close attention to because I had no background knowledge or expectations about how things looked or how people could act.
Under Heaven takes on a scope that you will not expect. Every character is well-rounded and deeply fascinating, and there is so much detail that I truly did want for nothing. I cannot extol the pleasure of reading this book enough. So I say again: pick it up. It’s incredible.
If you have read Guy Gavriel Kay, I would love recommendations on which book of his to pick up next. The new year is almost here, and I plan to ring it in with a pile of shiny new books!