Kelly's Reviews > Under Heaven

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
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Feb 14, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: 21st-century, fantasy-and-scifi, fiction, east-and-central-asia, owned
Recommended to Kelly by: only got my own obsession to blame on this one
Recommended for: diehard Kay fans
Read in May, 2010

(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 PLANET, etc vs…, as the Clerks gentlemen put it: “three movies about walking!” LOTR nerds usually fire back with something about “myths, legends, deeper meaning, invented a whole language… you heathen peasants!” (For a definitive opinion on this important subject, please see Dr. Oxford: ). Now, you guys, I’ve watched Fellowship of the Ring an unhealthy amount of times, you know I love me some 1000 pages of Victorian nonsense about nothing, and The Music of Repressed Piano is the rhythm of my heart, but right after finishing Under Heaven, I’m definitely more in sympathy with my Star Wars nerds.

Under Heaven is a trilogy within a very large stand alone epic. First book: Awesome. Second book: NO. Third book: Ultimately fails due to the flaws in set up of the second book, but could have been better. Also, A.S. Byatt should sue. I’ll explain.

Act I: He had me from his ghostly cries at night. I adored this set up- Kay places us by a lake in northern China- ahem, Kitai-, near the border with the powerful Taguran empire. A huge battle took place there twenty years ago, and as a result the bones of a hundred thousand soldiers lie unburied, their ghosts grieving and haunting the night. Shen Tai, the second son of the man who won the battle here for Kitai, has returned to grieve for his dead father by burying as many men as he can here- from both sides, for the duration of the formal two and a half year mourning period. I’ve come to expect rapture from Kay- I did not get it here, but I did get a wonderfully contemplative, quiet opening that seemed to speak of a more mature, measured writer. His contrast of poetic lyrics with living images was quietly lovely. He did an excellent job depicting his main character as a man on the cusp of life, of choosing a path, and all the problems that go with that- he did a particularly excellent job of evoking that sensation of closing doors, of Sylvia Plath’s dropping figs. I adored the echoes of the dead and real life bouncing off each other as Shen tries to find his “balance” (yes, there is a bit of basic yin-yang philosophy here) in life. He also sets up what turned out to be my favorite parts of the book: Interludes (which happen throughout the book) in which a third-person omniscient voice from the future looks back on the story being told lyrically expounds upon the difference between experienced events and recorded history- the idea that historical “truth” lies somewhere in between prejudice, perspective, imperfect records, and the narrative being told. It’s somewhere between an elegy and an amused critique of the idea of “history,” and it works very well. Plot wise, he sets up a great relationships for Shen Tai: with the Taguran captain, his lost concubine love, and the foreshadowing of his complicated relationship with his brother. There are hints of darkness closing in, and the close of the act delivers a perfect POW to the face that demands change.

Act II: I just… I just don’t know what Kay was thinking here. I don’t get it. I kind of wanted to turn to the alternative ‘Choose My Own Adventure’. He just turned the wrong way. I don’t know what else to tell you guys. I felt like that horse in Beauty and the Beast when the old dad tells him to turn down the creepy-ass road that’s clearly going to get everyone involved murdered, and his face is all, “Bitch kidding?” He left his perfectly wonderful story for three other ones, two of which were INCREDIBLY BORING. Shen Tai becomes the incarnation of three movies about walking- the Hollywoodized version. Of the 300 pages that it takes for him to get to the capitol, here's an approximation of how he spends his share of pages:

50 pages: Thinking about how he hasn’t had a woman in two years
50 pages: Being turned on by tufts of wind that may have been near the various goddess like women that populate the pages of this book
50 pages: Receiving important information (in a whorehouse)- and having it repeated later
20 pages: Mildly important plot events
2 pages: Having repartee he believes is witty with a woman
1 page: Actually having sex

The remainder of the pages are taken up by alternate storylines. Kay has always been one of the best among fantasy writers about giving women their due, and here he really does surpass himself. The women are everywhere. I’d say their stories dominate the book, actually. He should get some props for that. Unfortunately, of the four major women, two were stereotypes and one was boring, and the other one got TOTALLY SHAFTED for incredibly lame theme reasons. There were no Dianoras here, no Jehanes, no Catrianas. We spend a good 200 pages with Shen Tai’s sister and it’s quite dull. I mean, ostensibly, she’s a cool Strong Woman and all, but he just doesn’t have any passion about her and it shows. The women he does have passion for are the ones you would expect him to: the ones that are exquisite, beyond beautiful, and sexually confident. The one female character who did emerge as a fully formed person with a layered story… ends up totally not mattering at all! What a waste! And not in a beautifully thematic sort of way.

There’s just no coherence here- there’s no woven tapestry like there typically is. Usually in those moments, you get some kind of character development to make up for it. Not in this case, as you see above: riding, thinking about women, recapping plot, the end. It feels like he just chose the wrong story to tell to me. I wanted him to stick near the border, stuck between two forts (what a great story that would’ve been!), I wanted his sister to get captured by brigands and become a pirate queen or something, or why not tell us more about the Silk Road that you brought up continuously in the first 100 pages and then totally dropped in favor of events in the east. Why not meet the mysterious princess who offered Shen Tai so great a gift? Oooh, there are tigers down south and jungles to explore in India… so why aren’t we there? He talks a lot about the stories history doesn’t tell, those shunted to the side… and then proceeded to do that in his story- come on! That might've been part of the point, but we as readers should've gotten one of the more interesting choices, no? One of my English teachers used to circle off hand sentences at the bottom of a secondary argument and say, “Why didn’t you write about this instead??” I know how she felt now. Shen Tai was a potentially interesting character that was totally wasted on the rest of this book.

Act III: We finally get where we’re going. Unfortunately, the people we’re being brought to meet are not at all worth the wait. They're are caricatures of previous Kay characters, who’ve been done better before. I don’t even like Fionavar that much, and I thought the heir to the throne was a poor man’s Diarmuid, the emperor’s consort a pale imitation of the empress from the Sarantine Duology, etc, etc. He just gave me all the hallmarks, but didn’t put any soul into them. He gave me the customary language about being in awe and adoration of these people and didn’t really give me much to adore- everyone was much too distant and wasn’t there for long enough. The big climatic scene that’s supposed to be a tragedy fails because we weren’t set up to care. The romance pissed me off: a perfect example of Kay pausing at a fork in the road and taking the banal road, one that came up out of the blue I might add (a total Alessan-Catriana special), as opposed to the one he’d beautifully set up from the very beginning, involving the only character I really cared about. (This is where the AS Byatt thing comes into play- he seriously has the whole lost letter thing from Possession happen, with the same imagery, making the same point, rather clumsily, I thought.) I think I was supposed to just softly weep my heartbreak, but it just rung up as yet another poor storytelling choice. This happened repeatedly, with all the best stuff from Act I: with the family drama he set up at the beginning (totally wasted), the possibly ambiguous villains (they turn out to be black and white), and Shen Tai’s involvement with the larger events of the empire (just involved enough to make me want to follow that story, not involved enough to actually follow through).

And then, as if in parody of this whole thing, he committed the worst LOTR movie sin of them all: The perilously long epilogue where it takes twelve tries to say goodbye… mostly to characters who have been tragically oversimplified beyond hope of any connection. I already had my idea for this review in my head and almost couldn’t believe it was happening as I read it.

It wasn’t a bad book. It just failed to live up to its potential. You know, I just wrote a whole review of Kay’s earliest work, making fun of him for being in constant, throbbing ecstasy all the time. It turns out the pendulum can swing too far in the other direction. In painful irony, this was a novel about balance, too.

Overall: It’s like my mom said after I took her to see Into the Woods: “Told you nothing good could come of staying after the first act.”

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Reading Progress

04/28/2010 page 50
04/28/2010 page 60
10.47% "KAY IS BACK BITCHES!" 1 comment
04/30/2010 page 205
35.78% "The women are mysterious, the courts are subtle, the intrigues infinitely complex, the wine- copious. All is as it should be!"
04/30/2010 page 250
43.63% "Girls, girls, girls- even more so than normal. This is not an unmixed good thing."
05/02/2010 page 450
78.53% "Okay, you can't describe the palace as subtle and complex and brilliant and then have everyone involved act like COMPLETE FOOLS. GOD."
02/02/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-43 of 43) (43 new)

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message 1: by Kelly (last edited Feb 14, 2010 02:51PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly I'm hoping that a whole new continent of settings and histories to steal from rejuvenates his writing. It could happen!

message 2: by Terence (new)

Terence I have yet to read anything by Kay. Despite the many rave reviews I've seen on GR - maybe because of them: The build up is so great, the reality can only be anticlimactic.

But I do love Chinese-flavored fantasies...

If this gets the Kelly-Stamp-of-Approval, I may make this my first foray into the man's work.

message 3: by Terence (new)

Terence Elizabeth wrote: "Whimper. The Summer Tree, Terence. It's about a history PhD student."

Really? Well, that would hit closer to home... :-)

message 4: by Kelly (last edited Mar 30, 2010 10:13AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly I have to put a good word in for Lions of Al-Rassan as your first Kay, Terence. Fionavar is the place where Kay's concepts started and I totes understand the appeal of Summer Tree, but I think his writing is better in Lions. It's an alternate Spanish Reconquista story with an El Cid stand-in as part of it ... so maybe not as immediately relatable, but still awesome.

message 5: by Kelly (last edited Mar 30, 2010 10:13AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly It's so awesome to have an embarrassment of riches to argue over, isn't it? :) But seriously, you could be right. Summer Tree does have that contemporary way in. Also, the mythos connection that I should not divulge here but that I think Terence is interested in. Could be enough to overcome some objections to the writing.

Honestly, I think I need to read Summer Tree again. It's been over five years. You probably have a more polished and recent opinion of it than I do.

Compromise candidate: Song For Arbonne?

Lori What? No! Tigana! Terence should read Tigana! :D

Kelly, when I saw you had something up for this book, my heart did a flitter flutter - I thought you had read it!

I didn't even read Ysabel because I didn't want to ruin my fangirl for Kay.

message 7: by Terence (new)

Terence My what a hornet's nest I appear to have stirred up here! :-)

So it's either:

The Summer Tree
Lions of Al-Rassan
Song for Arbonne

or that heretic Lori's suggestion of Tigana?

I will keep all of them in mind. It may be a while before I get to him yet - I've made a commitment to whittle down the To-Read shelf a mite before commiting to anyone new.

message 8: by Kelly (last edited Mar 30, 2010 11:04AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly I will say that if you're worried about time commitments, once you read The Summer Tree, you're in for the rest of the trilogy. I don't see how one could stop there!

I agree with your comments about Lions' superiority, Elizabeth- I think it's probably more universally applicable and likely to strike a chord with today's world than Arbonne is. I suggested Arbonne because I think the Bertran-Urte storyline is just unbelievably moving and really gets at the crux of a lot of what Kay's about. Also: excellent, stay up through the night DRAMA. Who doesn't like that? Wanted to float it out there to be considered at least. But I'm happy to stick to Lions/Summer Tree for a recommendation.

(Lori- Tigana used to be my favorite (Lions is now). It was the first book of his I read, and the only Kay book that still makes me cry every time I read it, even now (oh my god THAT ENDING I can't help myself even though I know its coming). But I do think that Lions is better- for the maturity of how the themes are handled, the characters, the descriptions, complexity, and in keeping up the spell of the story far more consistently than Tigana does.)

Kelly Also: I think hornet's nests are a symbol of sincere admiration.

Or they are now.

Brooke Dammit, I'm a Tigana person!

I think if you want more of a typical fantasy, either Arbonne or Summer Tree are a good starting point. I have a friend who couldn't get into Tigana but loved Arbonne, although she hasn't gone on to read anything else by Kay.

Lions is definitely an impressive piece of work, but might not hit the spot if you go in wanting a very fantasy-ish novel.

I'm apparently alone in my love for Ysabel here (although over on BrightWeavings, the official Kay page, people mostly loved it). I think it has a lot of smart things to say about history and how we view it and consider out place in it. It's definitely a different book than he normally writes, though.

message 11: by Kelly (last edited Mar 30, 2010 11:49AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly I'm apparently alone in my love for Ysabel here (although over on BrightWeavings, the official Kay page, people mostly loved it). I think it has a lot of smart things to say about history and how we view it and consider out place in it. It's definitely a different book than he normally writes, though.

You know, I do think my problems with it have a lot to do with expectations. I always go into Kay expecting something very complex and adult, something that gives me a new perspective, new images and people who explain amazing things to me, and I didn't get that here. It felt like a very simplistic YA version of his work with all the nuance and awesome characters taken out and IPods added in to try to convince the kids he was cool. Awkward! Couldn't get past it.

You're definitely right to bring up the expectations game- hopefully Terence will be duly warned now!

message 12: by Terence (new)

Terence Terence is duly warned and will be prepared when he finally manages to hack his way through the kudzu that currently infests the To-Read shelf :-)

(Which is not to suggest that anything on the shelf is a literary "weed" - just that it's thick, ubiquitous and keeps growing back.)

message 13: by Lori (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lori I'm in the 2nd part, and it's good to see someone else validate what I'm feeling. I was thinking something was wrong with me, that I felt myself wavering over a KAY book, was I depressed was I failing as a reader? Still, definitely going to read on.

Kelly I was thinking something was wrong with me, that I felt myself wavering over a KAY book, was I depressed was I failing as a reader?

See that's the thing- if the both of us Kay fans, who have our "want this to be good" blinders on, feel that there are problems- there are probably some problems. Totally not your failure at all!

Honestly, I think he's got lazy while writing this book. He had a great idea and then tried to rest on just that framework for 500 pages while indulging himself with the filler. That doesn't really work.

message 15: by Kelly (last edited May 04, 2010 01:51PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly or LOTR compared to the entire, finished star wars series, including prequels and added-unnecessary-cute-stuff.

Oh, it just isn't fair to include the most recent trilogy. That's Jenga right there- not a fair fight to include the inbred cousins in this! Mostly I try to pretend that those prequels never existed. My nightmares bring them back to me sometimes though (the Vader Stella moment in the third movie. The horror! The horror!).

I am also a nerd. It's a nerd safe space here. :)

PS- Why weren't you into the setting for this book?

Kelly If Lucas had had the LOTR money, he would have f'ed up Star Wars a lot earlier.

I feel like it's much more about the fact that he seemed to have near total creative control on the second series, whereas before he let some other people help write, and other people direct. That is probably related to the money, though you're right.

Legend has it that Harrison Ford ad-libbed/modified many of his lines because as he said to Lucas at the time, "You can write this shit George, but you sure can't say it!" Yeah. That's the problem.

message 17: by J.G. Keely (new)

J.G. Keely I don't think anyone should be allowed to operate without editing. Genius is at its best when its being challenged. When Lucas had to fight for funding and get some dorky friends of his to make all the ships out of old helicopter models, he made great movies. When he had total creative control and all the ships were painstakingly rendered on a computer, he made dull movies.

James Cameron has the same problem. When he had to fight for scripts and funding, he made really interesting sci fi. Now that he's Mr. Money, he can make whatever he likes, and so he makes a piece of cliche propaganda.

If someone doesn't come in and challenge us creative types and tell us when we're being stupid, then our egos always get away with us.

Enjoyed your review, Kel, I'd never heard of these books before. I do think it's funny that they are set in 'Kitai', since 'Khitai' was the name of the mongol-inspired empire to the East in the Conan the Barbarian series.

message 18: by Kelly (last edited May 05, 2010 11:37AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly If someone doesn't come in and challenge us creative types and tell us when we're being stupid, then our egos always get away with us.

I totally agree with this about Lucas. After thirty years of fawning and cult God status, it seems unlikely anyone's going to tell the King he's a shitty writer. I don't know if I'd trace it all back to the money issue, but that certainly makes a lot possible.

With Cameron though... seems more like selfishness, you know? I'd argue that Avatar was as much a movie about the director's job as it was any story.

Enjoyed your review, Kel, I'd never heard of these books before. I do think it's funny that they are set in 'Kitai', since 'Khitai' was the name of the mongol-inspired empire to the East in the Conan the Barbarian series.

Was it?? That's hilarious. I wonder if that name actually does come out of history or if Kay just remembered it from that and decided to see if people would notice.

I should mention that this is actually just one big book- I called it a trilogy for ease of reviewing. I should also say that Kay is generally one of my favorite writers, this is a bad example of what he's capable of. He does history retellings with a bit of the fantastic mixed in. As you see above, we just got into a brawl about which Kay to recommend first, but I think the winner was Lions of Al-Rassan. I do think Tigana has some good meat in it too, though- about colonialism, names, etc.

message 19: by J.G. Keely (new)

J.G. Keely Well, apparently 'Khitai' was the Muslim name for the Medieval Kara-Khitan Khanate, in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. I'm not sure if he meant it as a reference to Howard or if they were both simply using historical names for their lands.

Howard liked injecting a bit of realism (and cultural background) into his world in this way, and if Kay is writing fictional histories, of course he would use real place names.

I'll have to keep an eye out for his books in the future.

message 20: by John (new) - rated it 3 stars

John ...riding, thinking about women, recapping plot, the end.

This, and some occasional poetic writing, pretty much sums up my experience with this novel. Spot-on review.

Doreen Excellent review! I thought I was losing my mind with how much I didn't enjoy this book in comparison with all I've heard about his talent otherwise. I'm so glad you confirmed that it wasn't just me who thought he screwed over Spring Rain, and how annoying Song was. Thanks for making me feel less crazy!

Kelly No, you're not crazy at all! And I promise that several of his other books are WAY better. I would recommend Lions of Al-Rassan, Tigana, or A Song for Arbonne- far and away better represent his talent.

Doreen Those are actually the 3 books my writer friend recommended to me (though he says he disliked Tigana on writerly principle: something about a dirty trick.) My best friend loaned me UH after loaning me Last Light of the Sun (which I hated more *and* was my introduction to GGK;) I think I have to tell him to stop loaning these out if he's trying to create more fans for GGK :).

message 24: by Kelly (last edited Aug 04, 2011 02:29PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly Yeah, AGREED. Those are not the GGKs you are looking for. Tigana is good, and I think I know what "dirty trick" he's talking about and I thought that payoff was totally worth it. It was my fav book as a teenager. However, Lions and Arbonne are both objectively better. I recognize this now.

message 25: by Kelly (last edited Aug 04, 2011 04:59PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly I love how we have our GGK routine down pat now. He should start giving us advertising dollars. we could take our act on the road. :)

Kelly I know, he's our big dark failure. :( It's really hard to predict who is going to like Kay though.

Doreen I have enough friends of similar taste to encourage me to keep reading. I know there are plenty of authors whose "worst" works, IMO, are in no way reflective of their best (e.g. Neal Stephenson, Kazuo Ishiguro,) so I'm still optimistic. I just wish I hadn't been introduced to GGK through these works.

message 28: by Terence (new)

Terence Kelly wrote: "I know, he's our big dark failure. :( It's really hard to predict who is going to like Kay though."

I am recovering nicely and am almost ready to forgive you all :-)

message 29: by Josephine (new) - added it

Josephine  (reading in twilight) I really like what your mom said, even if I still enjoy seeing Into the Woods. It's so so true.

Kelly Second act craziness of the ItW kind usually produces some of my favorite songs/moments, but yeah. In some cases it would have been better not to know. :)

message 31: by Josephine (new) - added it

Josephine  (reading in twilight) Kelly wrote: "Second act craziness of the ItW kind usually produces some of my favorite songs/moments, but yeah. In some cases it would have been better not to know. :)"

Oh, is it Children Will Listen? I could cry about that song sometimes. Say what you will about Into The Woods, but Sondheim knew what he was doing.

message 32: by Kelly (last edited Mar 20, 2012 11:18AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly Yeah I like that one, and... well I was about to list more but I realized I like most of them. :) (Though its usually the double whammy of No More and No One is Alone that gets me.) Sondheim is the best.

message 33: by Josephine (new) - added it

Josephine  (reading in twilight) Ohhhh the Baker's wife... the coveted role...

Kelly Oh yeah? I've only been around the casting for a few productions but everyone in those wanted to be the Witch. Perhaps these were particularly cynical groups. :)

message 35: by Josephine (new) - added it

Josephine  (reading in twilight) The witch is great, but I find the range of the baker's wife to be more meaty. I played Jack's Mother in the production I was in :P

Kelly Haha, that's a fun part! Underrated, if played by the right person.

message 37: by Amy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Amy M "He talks a lot about the stories history doesn’t tell, those shunted to the side… and then proceeded to do that in his story- come on!"
Perfectly said. I was so disappointed in this book and I've only read two of his other works (Tigana and Arbonne). I feel like characters would disappear as soon as they got interesting.. like what happened to Bytsan I thought he was the most interesting male character.

Daniel This.... this is about exactly how I felt reading this book. Great review.

Kelly Thanks! I wish it had been better. I love a lot of Kay's writing! Not this outing, though.

Daniel First book by him I've read... like you, I was blown away by the first part, and then it all just disintegrated. I'll still give his other stuff a shot though. I hear they're much better.

message 41: by Kelly (last edited Jan 17, 2013 02:01PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kelly Well.. some of them are. Don't get me wrong, the ones that are good are great and I loooove them, but some of the others are also meh. I would recommend that you check out Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan or Song for Arbonne. Avoid the Fionavar trilogy for now (unless you find you like the others) and Ysabel forever!

Daniel Awesome! Thanks for the suggestions. I had put the Fionavar trilogy on my to-read list since it sounds like my kind of thing, but I'll make sure to check those other three out first. Woohoo, books!

Kelly Haha, yes. Whoohoo books indeed! I hope you enjoy the books!

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