This review is by Suzanne Tindal/Wohlthat, an Australian journalist and writer who can be found on Twitter as @engochick.
Under Heaven is a fantasy using the Chinese Tang Dynasty as a framework. Author Guy Gavriel Kay does not, therefore, have to create a world as such, but conduct research into the one which had once existed.
He took his inspiration to write about this period of Chinese history from famed poets, so it’s not so strange that the mood he sets from the very beginning in this book is pensive and philosophic. The main character Tai is introspective, given to doing the opposite of what many of the other, stereotypically materialistic, inhabitants of his world are wont to do.
Tai, the second son of a celebrated general, decides to use a mourning period for his father to bury the dead at a battlefield which his father fought at forty years earlier. Because of the many angry and sorrowing ghosts inhabiting the field, which men can actually hear, he is thought of as crazy. But he spends two years digging graves, and is rewarded with a lavish gift from the princess of the people across the border – a careless gift which men would kill for and which will endanger his life.
The gift takes him away from the battlefield as he decides to deliver it to the imperial court before someone kills him over it. However, having been so long away from the court, he’s lost the subtlety necessary to survive in the political currents, resulting in games which Kay portrays in detail.
Unfortunately, the closed nature of these political games has not aided Kay in his characterisation. I did not become attached to Tai, who I felt was a walking stereotype of the “different” man who acts according to his heart. It was also difficult to get a glimpse into the other characters’ motives or emotions because we as the reader were only able to see the glimpses which their court poker faces allowed us. Only two characters gained my approval, one being a drunken poet, and another being an emperor’s concubine, who I think Kay drew well.
In general, I’m not sure where Kay was aiming this novel. I don’t feel that the story had enough intricacies to draw in those who love highly political Chinese-themed fantasy, and at the same time didn’t have enough sword fighting for those who love Chinese martial arts tales. For those who like romances, Kay has not tread the traditional route with his protagonists, leaving me (as one who enjoys a good love story) not satisfied. He has some supernatural elements in the novel, however, they’re not a main feature, which left me wondering why they were there at all.
In conclusion, he tried to pack too many elements into a story without doing a good job on any of them. The book was, however, written in a poetic manner and those looking for a bit of diversion may enjoy it.