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Under Heaven (Under Heaven #1)

4.12  ·  Rating Details  ·  8,936 Ratings  ·  1,138 Reviews
It begins simply. 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.

Hardcover, 573 pages
Published April 27th 2010 by Roc
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Bridge of Birds by Barry HughartThe Tales of the Otori Trilogy by Lian HearnThe Twelve Kingdoms by Fuyumi OnoEon by Alison GoodmanThe Girl with Ghost Eyes by M.H. Boroson
Chinese and Japanese Fantasy
9th out of 167 books — 336 voters
The Girl with Ghost Eyes by M.H. BorosonUnder Heaven by Guy Gavriel KayThe Name of the Rose by Umberto EcoThe Wreath by Sigrid UndsetThe Wife by Sigrid Undset
Best Unique Historical Fiction
2nd out of 77 books — 49 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Khanh (the Grinch)
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 liked it  ·  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
Aug 17, 2014 David Sven rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 02, 2011 Carol. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Alex Ristea
Apr 04, 2013 Alex Ristea rated it it was amazing
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
D. Pow
Aug 09, 2010 D. Pow rated it really liked it
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
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
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
Nov 27, 2010 Kat Hooper rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobook
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
Feb 20, 2015 Tracey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fantasy, horses, 5-star, china
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
Oct 29, 2015 agata rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: die-hard GGK fans
Recommended to agata by: SciFi and Fantasy Book Club
Shelves: reviewed, weggegeben
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
Apr 01, 2013 Jon added it
Recommended to Jon by: Beyond Reality Dec 2010 Fantasy Selection
"Do you know ... well, no, you can't possibly know, since I have never told anyone ... but I have sometimes dreamed of a second moon to write about. Wouldn't that be a gift?"

Cheeky Guy Gavriel Kay, referencing to all his other novels, set in two-moons planets :)

Anyway, Under Heaven has been quite a great reading. First time I read Gavriel in English, and man, he can write. Amazing prose, beautiful lyrical writing. I've half an idea to re-read Tigana in English, 'cause I'm sure it'd be even bette
Jun 27, 2011 Alice rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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.
Under Heaven has been long overdue for me, to the point when I was practically driven crazy by trying to read anything else. That's how high my anticipation was.

This is beyond what I'm used to from historical China: rather than the chaotic periods of history when the land is split into multiple warring kingdoms, Kay's story is placed at the height of unified Chinese power during the Tang dynasty. Legitimacy is virtually unquestioned, all the people of the empire are brought under one ruler, and
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
"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
Jun 14, 2010 Brooke rated it really liked it
Shelves: own, fantasy, 2010
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
Sarah Anne
This was a really wonderful book. I was told that it had a very slow and steady pace and I found that this worked really well for me. I'm not familiar with the dynasties of China and the character names were a bit more difficult for me. Additionally, I was using the audio. So the way that the characters were introduced one by one, leaving time to get to know them before another was introduced, really worked. The pace did pick up, as did the complexity. I was with it right up to the moment that p ...more
Adam Wiggins
Nov 22, 2015 Adam Wiggins rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Poetic, serene, thoughtful -- and yet full of drama, action, and intrigue. I greatly enjoyed this book.

It appears to take place in ancient China (though never named as such), so I suppose it's historical fiction. However, the combination of hero's-journey elements, Machiavellian court politics, and mild supernatural elements could qualify it as low fantasy.

I'm inclined to call this an Asian-themed Game of Thrones (which is probably unfair to both works).

Beauty is woven into every element. Little
Melissa McShane
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
Apr 12, 2010 Stefan rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 06, 2012 Lee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 plo
Dec 19, 2010 Kerry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ebooks, fantasy, 8, 2010
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
May 27, 2010 Lori rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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'
Dec 23, 2014 Patremagne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
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
Dec 10, 2014 Manju rated it really liked it
I wanted to read this for a long time.

Story starts with Shen Tai being gifted 250 Sardian horses (a very valuable breed) by a Tagur (a rival kingdom) princess for his work of burying the dead of a great battle between the kingdoms of Kitai and Tagur. Shen Tai had been doing this in memory of his father. On his last day (after two years of burying the dead), Shen Tai faces an assassination attempt by a Kanlin Warrior (trained and most feared warriors). Somehow Shen Tai survives this attempt. Byt
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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
More about Guy Gavriel Kay...

Other Books in the Series

Under Heaven (2 books)
  • River of Stars (Under Heaven #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.” 30 likes
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