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Under Heaven (Under Heaven #1)

4.1 of 5 stars 4.10  ·  rating details  ·  7,002 ratings  ·  979 reviews
View our feature on Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven.

In his latest innovative novel, the award-winning author evokes the dazzling Tang Dynasty of 8th-century China in a story of honor and power.

Inspired by the glory and power of Tang dynasty China, Guy Gavriel Kay has created a masterpiece.

It begins simply. Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Ki
Hardcover, 573 pages
Published April 27th 2010 by Roc (first published January 1st 2010)
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Chinese and Japanese Fantasy
9th out of 151 books — 257 voters
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Best Unique Historical Fiction
20th out of 63 books — 29 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Khanh (Clowns, Nightmares, and Bunnies)
Sometimes, words fail me when I need them most. Oftentimes, it's because a book is so bad that I don't even know where to begin listing all the problems. In this case, in the case of my very favorite books, the right words just escape me because there's just nothing I can say. Because my simple, stupid words are meaningless when it comes to describing the pure, untarnished brilliance of this book. I am simply humbled.

It's like thanking the one of the great living people on earth, someone one tr
May 04, 2010 Kelly rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: diehard Kay fans
Recommended to Kelly by: only got my own obsession to blame on this one
(Dear Goodreads friends I may have deceived with my initial status updates on this book, please to accept my profound regrets and the below revised retraction- if you don't mind some spoilers...

With apologies,

So, you guys saw Clerks, right? Actually, I think it might’ve been Clerks II, but anyway: there’s one part where some characters pose a very important nerd battle: Star Wars trilogy vs. LOTR trilogy. The major points are as per usual, Darth Vader and lightsabers, BOOM EXPLODING PLA
David Sven
Guy Gavriel Kay gives us a fantasized historical fiction of Tang China. What does that mean exactly? A little hard to explain. It feels very authentically like 8th century China complete with the Great Wall keeping the Bogu (barbarian) tribes at bay, the Capital Xinan, and the politics and intrigues of the Imperial court. Then throw in an element of the supernatural/preternatural, with restless ghosts and wandering undead.

After the death of the honoured General Shen Gao, his son, Shen Tai our ma
How to Write Pretentious Historical Fiction

1. Start with an exceedingly slow build-up -- the more detail, the better. If your book is lengthier, people will assume it's more literary.

2. Choose an exotic time period and locale and evoke it wherever possible. Hopefully the fascinating food and clothing details will help your reader forget that there was no indoor plumbing. Then, proceed to superimpose all sorts of anachronistic qualities on your story to appeal to contemporary readers' fantasies a
Alex Ristea
I've said it before, but I'll say it again.

Guy Gavriel Kay's works are a celebration of the English language. It is simply beautiful to read.

Kay started out as a poet, and that's clearly evident in Under Heaven, where not a word is out of place.

The themes of this book are subtle, and will only hit you after some time has passed for digestion. Truth, stories, people, memory, history. The whole time I was reading I thought this book would be 4 stars, but after a few sleeps on it, I can't get it ou
After The Last Light of the Sun (a novel I didn't like), I took a long, much needed break from the writing of Guy Gavriel Kay.

I bought Ysabel, but it languishes on my bookshelf even now. I avoided Under Heaven until it became our fantasy book in the Sci-Fi & Fantasy Book club. Once it won the vote, I thought it might be time to return to Kay.

I was a third into the book when my daughter, Scoutie, booknapped it and hid it under the love seat in the Sun Room. It resurfaced while we were vaccuu
D. Pow
There was a time, I’d say from the early 90s until six or seven years ago, that Guy Gavriel Kay might have been my favorite writer. He was definitely my favorite fantasy writer- and to call him a fantasy writer is probably misleading, the fantasy elements in his books are often small and subtle-he is more a Historical Fiction writer than anything. He and I have grown apart, though. Mostly because my tastes have changed, I suspect, but also due to his last several books just not being up to his p ...more
Bob Milne
When I sit down to immerse myself in a book, the overall narrative style is important in drawing me into the author's world, but it's generally the sophistication of the overall plot and the strength of the characters that makes me want to stay there. As such, I don't usually wax poetic about the lyrical language of a story, the smoothly coursing flow of words, or the layered beauty of sentences and paragraphs.

Well, this is one of those exceptionally notable exceptions.

Under Heaven is, far and a
Kat  Hooper
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest historical fantasy, Under Heaven, is gorgeous. If you’re already a fan of GGK, you know exactly what kind of delight you’re in for. Under Heaven is every bit as wonderful as Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Last Light of the Sun. Every bit.

Under Heaven takes place in Kitai — an alternate Tang Dynasty (but not so alternate that you won’t recognize the names of many of the characters if you read just a brief history of the Tang Dy
Delicious, a meaty, engrossing book with prose that brushed the edges of poetry. In some ways, it is three different books that might have benefited from being turned into full novels, but that's part of the joy of Kay's work-- he always has me wishing there was more time to explore relationships, back stories, and so on. It's an unusual setting for the type of fantasy I read, set in ancient China during the Tang Dynasty, a golden age of China's power. He wove the characters together in one of ...more
Apr 01, 2013 Jon added it
Recommended to Jon by: Beyond Reality Dec 2010 Fantasy Selection
The story begins with one Shen Tai, second son of a great general who has just, two years and a half ago (not quite), died. The mourning period is that long, two and half years, and requires complete withdrawal from society. And Tai, as part of his mourning, to honor his father, has come back to Kuala Nor, where his father won a great victory. That victory cost his people 40,000 Kitan men – and cost the enemy, the Tagurans, 60,000 men. None of these soldiers received burial, and an unburied body ...more
Jul 22, 2012 agata rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: die-hard GGK fans
Recommended to agata by: SciFi and Fantasy Book Club
Shelves: reviewed
In short: Kay promises a lot, but in the end he falls short to deliver.

A book always comes with expectations. General ones you have towards all books and specific ones for a particular one.
I read "Under heaven" with the "SciFi and Fantasy Book Club". I had not read anything by Guy Gavriel Kay before and didn't know what to expect. I was just curious and decided to give the Kindle sample a try.

I was imediately hooked. Poetic prose, slow and deliberate development of story and character, a familia
So how much trouble could 250 horses be? I mean, besides feeding them and keeping them in shape it can't be that bad, right?

Well, if these horses happen to be highly prized by very powerful people (including an Emperor) AND you are stuck in the middle of nowhere when you receive the gift you can find yourself in a bit of a pickle. This is the situation Shen Tai finds himself in when he is gifted (though gifted might not be how he sees it) 250 magnificent Sardian horses, horses whose qualities f
"Shen Tai, son of an illustrious general serving the Emperor of Kitai, has spent two years honoring the memory of his late father by burying the bones of the dead from both armies at the site of one of his father's last great battles. In recognition of his labors and his filial piety, an unlikely source has sent him a dangerous gift: 250 Sardian horses.

You give a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You give him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towar
I had a really hard time getting through this book. I liked the beginning; the whole set up of the story intrigued me and I liked the main character, Shen Tai from the outset. In the beginning, Tai has spent almost 2 years burying the dead at the site of a great battle to honor the memory of his general father who has died. When the princess of a neighboring kingdom decides to award him with 250 Sardian horses (an unthinkable amount of a very preciously traded treasure) as a mark of respect for ...more
I'll preface my review by saying that I'm a long-time fan of Kay; he's a fixture on my list of favourite authors.

That being said -

I found Under Heaven quite disappointing. From the [lack of] plot to the [extremely under-developed] characters, the whole novel felt very wanting.

Based on Kay's better works (e.g. Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, etc. ) we know that he could have easily made this into a real classic, with characters and lines and imagery that stay with you years after you've read them.
First a moment of sadness - even after making this one stretch out for a week, I'm yet again facing another likely 3 years until my #1 favorite author releases a new book. I do hate that.

To be truthful, after the wait for Under Heaven, the result was a little anti-climatic. As I was reading it, I kept thinking that it was The Sarantine Mosaic Lite. In both books, a commoner gets embroiled in the politics of an emperor's court during a tumultuous time in the empire's history. In both books, the m
Melissa Proffitt
I'm a fan of Kay's history-derived fantasies, like the Sarantine Mosaic, and this one is outstanding. I had trouble putting it down and couldn't stop thinking about it when I did. The Chinese-analogue empire of Kitai is powerful, but covets the horses of the western Tagur Empire. Shen Tai is only fulfilling his years of mourning for his father by burying the dead of Kuala Nor, but his courage in facing the restless spirits brings him to the attention of a wife of the Taguran Emperor, formerly a ...more
Fans of Guy Gavriel Kay know that his novels often take place in what appear to be fantasy versions of real countries: A Song for Arbonne is set in 13th century France, The Lions of Al-Rassan in Spain during the Moorish occupation, and so on. Likewise, Under Heaven once again gently blends history and fantasy, taking place in Kitai, a country strongly reminiscent of China, during the Tang dynasty.

Here we meet Shen Tai, who is honoring his recently deceased father (a famed general) by burying the
I'm not quite sure what I think of this book.

I liked it, but it wasn't prefect. The prose was beautiful and so was the setting. But something about it just didn't seem to flow properly for me. It was beautifully put together, but it seemed to be lacking narrative flow.

All the different points of view sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. Some of the characters are introduced and never seen again. I wouldn't have understood the shifts of first person POV if I hadn't heard a podcast with the auth
This is the fourth Guy Gavriel Kay book I've read with a book club and will probably be my last GGK for a while. Set in a fictional version of ancient China this is a retelling of the An Shi or An Lushan Rebellion.

The world is incredibly detailed drawing images in my mind reminiscent to movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Each path is well written and the characters feel real. At times it did get a little bogged down as Kay got carried away with the descriptions but eventually
Lori (Hellian)
I finished this almost 2 weeks ago, been remiss in my review of it, probably because I was undecided about how many stars to give it, 3 or 4. Kay is one of my favorite writers which is one reason I've been wishy washy about giving it 3 stars, altho that is still a good rating for me. However, I feel I can not rightly give it the super 4 stars, it didn't linger with me.
I went thru stages with it. I started it and read solid for a little, then I went and got all productive with stuff (!) and didn'
Definitely a story of characters, with many events toward the end kind of happening in the background, which was sorta odd in that the events were fairly large ones.

Maybe that's it. Maybe the events don't matter in the grand scheme of things. What matters are the characters around which the events shape. Their relationships, hardships, courage, and perseverance all come to the fore, and that's where GGK excels: characters. There were some exciting parts, sure, but it wasn't exactly an exciting b
Jason Mills
Apr 11, 2010 Jason Mills rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Readers of fantasy, Sinophiles, relishers of fine prose and rich storytelling.
Shelves: fantasy, fiction
In Under Heaven Kay takes us to Kitai, a fantasised analogue of 8th-century China. Our protagonist is Tai, a young adventurer in mourning for his father, a respected general. His response to this loss is to spend two years in a remote mountain battlefield, burying the dead to bring peace to their spirits. For this noble act he is rewarded by Tagur (think Tibet) with 250 of the world's finest horses, a gift that suddenly makes him one of the most important people in the empire. Tai is quickly emb ...more
Guy Gavriel Kay returns to his roots in this sweeping, vivid adventure set in a fantastical world that closely resembles China during the glory and fall of the 8th century Tang Dynasty. Kay's signature talent for interweaving various characters, motifs and storylines are on full display here, as we enter the life of Shen Tai, a general's second son, whose two years spent burying the bones of those who died on a long-forgotten battlefield as mourning for his father is cut short by the unexpected ...more
The richness of this book swept me away. Kay clearly did an enormous amount of in-depth research, and then used it to build his own fantastical world. His prose is gorgeous, his world-building immersive, and his characters deeply appealing.

I have to admit, I was quite pleased with myself for realizing the parallels to the fall of the T'ang dynasty before I was told. (The obese foreign general being swaddled like a baby by the Emporer's concubine for the amusement of the court tipped me off.) App
Mogsy (MMOGC)
A historical fantasy set in far-away Kitai, a land inspired by Tang Dynasty China. One of my favorite books of all time is The Lions of Al-Rassan by Kay, so this fact along with my interest in imperial Chinese history made this book a must-read. Under Heaven tells the story of a middle son of a Kitan general who spends two years in the mountains burying the bones of soldiers from a war that took place there, and is given 250 “heavenly” Sardian horses for his honorable deed. This extravagant gift ...more
aPriL eVoLvEs (ex-Groot)
Entertaining. Book one is five star, but then it becomes more pedestrian. Even so, Kay combines actual history with some fantasy elements, throws in a taste of the machinations of court life in one of the Chinese eras, and by following a dozen characters has an interesting book. I think the story lost strength in the last Book because the author decided to divert attention from his fictionalized history into an authorial voice discussing the uncertainty of history when trying to put together the ...more
Story: 4/5
1: Being Vague, rambling plot with no little believable storyline
5: Ripping yarn, clever, thought provoking

As a Gavriel Kay fan, I was excited to be reading some of his work again, as it has been a while. This story is different from most of this work, (maybe somewhat in the vein of Lions of al-Rassan) with a very strong storyline based around political intrigue of an empire reminiscent of a japanese or chinese emperor. There are very few action scenes in this story with the main plot
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Under Heaven Rationale 7 89 Apr 01, 2014 10:17PM  
ELEVEN READER'S CLUB: Under Heaven Rationale 1 11 Sep 30, 2012 02:34PM  
SciFi and Fantasy...: Part 4 & Afterthoughts *Spoilers* 9 51 Aug 13, 2012 04:11AM  
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Guy Gavriel Kay is a Canadian author of fantasy fiction. Many of his novels are set in fictional realms that resemble real places during real historical periods, such as Constantinople during the reign of Justinian I or Spain during the time of El Cid. Those works are published and marketed as historical fantasy, though the author himself has expressed a preference to shy away from genre categoriz ...more
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Other Books in the Series

Under Heaven (2 books)
  • River of Stars
Tigana The Summer Tree (The Fionavar Tapestry, #1) The Lions of Al-Rassan The Darkest Road (The Fionavar Tapestry, #3) The Wandering Fire (The Fionavar Tapestry, #2)

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“How we remember changes how we have lived.
Time runs both ways. We make stories of our lives.”
“The world could bring you poison in a jewelled cup, or surprising gifts. Sometimes you didn't know which of them it was.” 24 likes
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