Title / Under Heaven
Author / Guy Gavriel Kay
Publication Date / 2010 (first published)
Series or standalone / book 1 of Under Heaven duology
Overall Star Rating / ★★★★★
Under Heaven is set in a fictionalized version of the Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China and contains a masterful story of family, intrigue and power. It is a historical fantasy and it is the first book in the Under Heaven companion duology; the second book is River of Stars which is set in a world inspired by the Song dynasty.
“The world is not something to be understood. It is vanity, illusion to even try.” – Li-Mei
This was my first book by this author and it will definitely not be my last. Simply put, this was a fantastic book. From the beginning I could tell that every word is so well placed and that the writing is very well thought out. It was a pleasure to read this book, because the writing is so good. It immerses you in this world and characters, and makes you want to read on. It is quite a long book at over 500 pages and at times the pacing makes it quite a slow read, but the writing and characters will keep you engaged throughout. Some may find that the slow but steady pacing results in the story dragging, however I had no issues with this. Even in the slower moments, the book was compelling for me. The first few chapters really hook you into the story and from then on it never loses momentum, even when the pacing is slow. The plot is compelling throughout and once I’d started reading I didn’t want to put this book down. Another strength of this book was the world building. Under Heaven takes place in Kitai, which as I’ve mentioned is an alternate version of the Tang Dynasty. From the very beginning of the book I was completely immersed in the world. It is clear that the author has done a lot of research on this period of history. Now I do not know a lot about Chinese history, so I cannot comment on authenticity, but I can say that this complex world is richly painted. Not only do we get a good understanding of the world as a whole, we also get to see some of the inner workings of court intrigue. The politics and intrigue are fantastic. I love political intrigue in fantasy and Kay has done it so well. Everything unfolds at just the right pacing, without rushing it, and it was a pleasure to watch to all unfold.
Although we mainly follow Shen Tai, there is a fantastic cast of characters that we meet in this book too. This is primarily a character driven story with compelling narratives for each character perspective. As I’ve mentioned Shen Tai’s perspective is used the most, but each perspective is as compelling as the last and the flow is never disrupted by a switch of perspectives. All of the characters are incredibly well written. There are so many characters that I loved in this book but one of my favourites would have to be Wei Song. She is such a strong and intriguing character and I would love to know more about her. There are many more characters I could talk about, including Li Mei, Sima Zian and Meshag, but then this review would be incredibly long. Just know that all of the characters in this book are all complex, flawed and wonderfully vivid. Even with a character you dislike, Kay manages to make you think twice about them and to see them in a more sympathetic light. The relationships between the characters are also well written. It was so interesting to see all the different relationships between the characters and how they developed throughout the book. The characters are definitely a massive strength of this book and I think I will pick up on new things about each character when I reread this book. Put simply, I adored this book and I want to recommend it to as many people as I can. Everything about this book is well thought out and I loved reading every second of it.
Overall, I loved this book and I cannot wait to read more from this author. This is a wonderful mix of historical fiction and fantasy that has resulted in a compelling and fascinating read. The characters are so well written, the plot is compelling, and the writing is fantastic. Kay has managed to weave these elements all together seamlessly to create a complex and layered book. This is the kind of book that you just don’t want it to end and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It has definitely moved into my favourites. I would highly recommend reading this book, especially if you enjoy a mix of historical fiction and fantasy, and/or enjoy character driven stories. However, if you want a quick, action-packed fantasy read then this probably isn’t the book for you. I will definitely be checking out the other book in this companion duology, River of Stars. Have you read this book? What did you think? I hope you are all having a wonderful day and I will see you next time.