Ms.pegasus's Reviews > Under Heaven

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
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Nov 19, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, china, fiction
Recommended for: anyone interested in great writing, historical fiction, china
Read in November, 2011 , read count: 1

A handful of characters depicted with nuance and complexity; total immersion in a subtle and conflicted society – these are the primary elements of this unforgettable novel set in the Tang Dynasty. The primary character is Shen Tai, honoring his recently deceased father by secluding himself for the traditional two year mourning period. The seclusion is more than contemplative. His father, General Shen Gao's greatest triumph and sorrow was at this site; 40,000 soldiers died here. A symbolic gesture of personal loss is transformed into an ultimate inquiry into humanity as Shen Tai works to bury the dead from this battlefield.

UNDER HEAVEN abounds with dualities and balances: “The world could bring you poison in a jewelled cup, or surprising gifts. Sometimes you didn't know which of them it was.” Shen Tai himself is described as a person between worlds. He trained as a warrior and a scholar, but walked away from both paths. His temperament seems to defy categorization. However, the same might be said of his siblings. His sister, Shen Li-Mei is almost obsessively curious. Even General Shen viewed this in his daughter with both pride and misgiving. His brother Shen Liu is the most enigmatic. He is viewed only through the eyes and actions of others. Yet, his role is pivotal to recalibrating the imbalances that drive the plot forward.

Even minor characters are imbued with life and purpose. Their paths intersect and their choices seem to flow from the understanding we've been given about who they are. Sometimes we regret those choices, and that is what elevates our barely perceived sense of tragedy. At the same time, the author juxtaposes these primal emotions against a larger backdrop. Each action has a consequence, we are ceaselessly reminded.

The writing is powerful enough to make a world before scientific explanation seem real. Darkness is kept at bay by fire. Shape-shifters and ghosts haunt the world. Sorcerers cloak themselves in vestments of metal mirrors and bells. At this world's center is a sophisticated court expressing realities through protocol, poetry, and above all, politics. Myth and art are expressions of cultural obsessions -- fierce hungers. Think about that the next time you view a sculpted ceramic horse from the Tang era.
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