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Previous BotM--DISCUSSIONS > 2010-12 UNDER HEAVEN: finished reading *SPOILERS*

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message 1: by Stefan, Group Founder + Moderator (Retired) (new)

Stefan (sraets) | 1667 comments Mod
This thread is for people who have finished reading Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay4].


message 2: by Shel, Moderator (new)

Shel (shel99) | 2352 comments Mod
I just finished this and am totally blown away. Kay is one of my all-time favorite authors, yet I was not in love with his last two books (The Last Light of the Sun and Ysabel), so I was a little anxious about this one. Thankfully, it didn't disappoint.

My full review is here:

message 3: by William (new)

William (williamjm) I read it back in May when it first came out. I agree with Shel's review above, that it is a return to form for Kay after a couple of books that were reasonably good but a bit disappointing by his high standards.

The quality of the writing was very high, the characterisation was excellent, the setting was well-described and interesting and the plot was compelling. Overall I'd say it was an excellent book.

I'm not sure I'm entirely keen on the extended epilogue which briefly described a lot of events but didn't really show us any of them. The suggestion that Li Mei married the new Emperor seemed a bit odd, I'm not sure it really fit with her character.

I think the best bit of the book was possibly the early chapters at Kuala Nor, Shen Tai's seemingly endless task was a great way to start the book.

In terms of Kay's books I'm not sure I'd quite say it was the best of his (I'd probably say that is Tigana) but it is comparable to some of his excellent previous books like Lions of Al-Rassan, The Sarantine Mosaic and A Song for Arbonne.

message 4: by Sandi (new)

Sandi (sandikal) | 338 comments I listened to the audio book narrated by Simon Vance a few months ago. I was seriously underwhelmed. I'd heard such great things about both author and narrator, I was sure it was going to be great. Instead, I found a book that moved way too slow and spent a lot of time with nothing happening. I wanted much more of Li Mei's story line. The main male character was an absolute bore. I wanted everything to connect sooner than it did.

Maybe I would have enjoyed it more in print.

message 5: by Shel, Moderator (new)

Shel (shel99) | 2352 comments Mod
Interesting. I never felt that nothing was happening, but I can see how one might get that impression from the audio version - after all, I can read to myself a heck of a lot faster than anyone can read out loud, so the pace of an audiobook is just slower. (which is why the only books I listen to on audio are nonfiction, because I get frustrated with the slow pace when I need to know what happens next! but I digress)

I just love it when I close a book after an emotional ending - the best way I can think of to describe it is that my heart is full. I love Kay's endings because they are not universally happy or universally sad - they are universally REAL. There's enough joy to be satisfying mixed up with sorrow (I *sobbed* at Wen Jian's death, but then again, it doesn't take much to make me sob these days...darn pregnancy hormones) that makes it real. I agree with William that it wasn't quite as good as Tigana (definitely my favorite Kay title) but still, I closed the last page with a happy sigh and tears in my eyes.

message 6: by Ken (new)

Ken (ogi8745) | 1356 comments I finished this last night and I found this one on the low end of the Kay scale, with that said still a good read.
The book started quite well. I enjoyed the whole Kuala Nor thing. The book for me feel apart after Shen Tai`s meeting with An Li and Weh Jian and the Inn. I felt he had no idea where to go and the book kinda tread water till it ended.
Li Mei`s storyline..What was the whole point.

message 7: by Stefan, Group Founder + Moderator (Retired) (new)

Stefan (sraets) | 1667 comments Mod
My favorite aspect of this book was the prose. Kay often writes in a very lush, rich style, but in this book it's as if he adapted his usual style to a more understated one. In my review, I described it this way:

It may not make complete sense to call descriptive prose "courteous," but that's the one word that comes to mind: just like the careful speaking style of some of the characters, who can imply so much while saying so little, and who occasionally make an exclamation or pose a question without employing the expected tone or punctuation and instead using the carefully measured weight of every word, Guy Gavriel Kay often uses a subtle, even understated way to describe events, places and people. You could imagine someone narrating this story in a soft, muted tone, eyes lowered, respectfully letting the words speak for themselves while not trying to let emotion impinge on their meaning. It's a gorgeous balancing act, and a rare pleasure to read.

As usual with GGK, this book also led me to dig a little deeper into the historical period it was based on. If you're interested, just plug "Tang Dynasty" into Wikipedia and you'll immediately recognize the historical figures many of the characters were based on. It's a fascinating historical period.

(And one small additional note: when the review went up on FanLit, the author emailed me to thank me for my review and added this:

One small correction, though an amusing one.

Stefan, you describe the poet as Li Bai ... that’s the ‘model’ of course, the inspiration, so I’m kind of touched you did that. But the character in the book is called Sima Zian.

That made my week!)

message 8: by Hirondelle (new)

Hirondelle I read this a couple months ago, and it really really annoyed me. Better than Ysabel though ( but in my opinion that is not saying much!).

I used to love GG books, then I think I got pickier and his books got a bit obvious. Ysabel was the lowpoint for me, but I think this is tied with Last Light of the Sun as second least favorite of mine (Fionavar excepted). I did not like it and it drove me crazy going "ah-aha!" at some sentences and plot points.

I can try to explain why I disliked so much, if anybody interested, but it feels a bit raining on the parade to do so without provocation when everybody else seems to have liked it.

message 9: by Shel, Moderator (new)

Shel (shel99) | 2352 comments Mod
I'd be interested in hearing what you disliked; I know Kay isn't for everyone and will certainly take no offense if you hated something I loved :) After all, discussions are more interesting when there's something to discuss...

message 10: by Jeff (new)

Jeff Watson | 55 comments I love Kay's work with The Lions of al-Rassan being my favorite. I enjoyed Ysabel. I was a nice read. I've tried to read Tigana on several occasions and it didn't catch for me. I place the burden of these failures on where my head was at the time.

That said, I really enjoyed the setup of Under Heaven. The characterizations and the understated handling of the magic and the ghosts was very deftly done. The moving of characters to develop the conflict was, for me, Kay at his best.

But then I had a big problem with how the climactic scenes of the books were handled. The shifting into the future to see how the events of the book were resolved really jarred me... hard. It was as though the flow of the book had been interrupted. It resulted in this being one of my least favorite Kay books. (Note: I've not read the second Sararntium book not Last Light of the Sun yet.)

message 11: by William (new)

William (williamjm) Jeff wrote: "But then I had a big problem with how the climactic scenes of the books were handled. The shifting into the future to see how the events of the book were resolved really jarred me... hard. It was as though the flow of the book had been interrupted"

There do seem to be a few complaints along these lines about the ending. I think it might partially be a consequence of basing his work so closely on real historical events, historically there was a long drawn-out war so there is one in the book as well and inevitably we don't see much of it. Lions does a similar thing with its epilogue set several years after the end of the book and we don't see much of the actual war. Something not based on historical events like Tigana can have a much neater ending.

message 12: by Ken (new)

Ken (ogi8745) | 1356 comments I am with Jeff. He could have written these ...asides...better. Its was interesting the first time but after a while it was just tiresome, same with turn left instead of right stuff.
It almost feels like he wrote himself into a corner and could not get around.

Hirondelle, let us know what you didn't like. Thats kinda the whole point of these threads. Its not always a love fest.

message 13: by Hirondelle (new)

Hirondelle I can try to explain, not sure I can do it coherently or fluently. And it has been a few months since I have read it.

First thing is, I started out loving it. The setting, the ghosts, I thought this was going to be good. And then we have the gift of the horses and the scene with the barbarian guard, and there I started having problems. "The Kitan could do such things to you, or this one could", I think GGK has used a scene like this, from the PoV of a "barbarian" in every of this books, he reuses it again later in the book as well! The scene seems a bit stupid, a perfectly good character Bytsan seems to be here only to give another perspective on "our hero" and make him look good, and it´s quite silly. The gift of the horses is frankly a McGuffin - the motivations of the giver are never really explained, I can not believe that these horses could truly be important in war, and further, I can not quite believe that if it was physically possible to move hundreds of horses from a neighbouring country at the whim of a monarch, that no enterprising smugglers or wealthy merchant magnats had never managed to bring some into Chin, sorry Kitai before.

I did not like that some points of view, like the weatern prostitute in the brothel were used and then forgotten. The said PoV of the prostitute seemed to be to give a PoV of a particular scene from somebody not getting a small detail, but it seems fake, for extra surprise and pathos, and it is lke this guy is doing it every single book.

Same thing about, and this made me want to bash my head against the wall, the whole omniscient ( and too obvious!) commentary if only the escaping concubine had stopped at this inn on her escape and be reunited with our hero the ending of the story would be different. I don´t like that type of storytelling.

A lot of the plotting does not make much sense to me either - like mentioned before, we never get any explanation of why the kitan princess gifts the horses, but I never quite understand either why the general rebels or what game was actually being played. The scenes dealing up to the death of Wen Jian also are strange, a crown prince telling stories and riding his horse up to common soldiers, the whole pathos, Wen Jian´s acceptance of her role as sacrificial lamb is not really consistent in my mind. Maybe the real history would make better sense (or not. I did like the part in the epilogue about history getting rewritten), but this is fiction, I expect it to make some psychological sense. I know almost nothing about that history, though I could identify Wen Jian by by the lychees and something which made me slightly sad, the real was supposedly famously plump, in this case Wen Jian is a very platonic ideal of beauty, which somehow makes it less interesting.

speaking of Wen Jian, she seems a sort of stock GGK character, the very beautiful, mysterious, adored powerful female. I could not really relate to any of the female characters and I think if the plot was going to be about who "ended up" with, Wei Song gets a raw deal, that relationship seems very perfunctory - and that she is in love with Shen Tai, well just because. But I will remark that on GGK books, women characters do very very often are crazy in love with the male main characters.

About the epilogue, I liked some of it, but the events were so major I kept feeling the novel was about the wrong thing. I wanted to see how the little sister became empress ( because surely it was her) or other things.

message 14: by Ken (new)

Ken (ogi8745) | 1356 comments I Hear ya brother
Most of the comments I do agree with. Some...I do not. I didn't mind the maguffin of the horses. We needs a way for a low ranking person a way to interact with the higher ups. For a Maguffin I liked it. Wen Jian, I didnt mind her, I guess my biggest problem with her was her political might, I can see why she had to go.
My biggest problem was Tai's sister. What was the point.
I still have no idea what the point of her story was.

I still feel he lost his way once Shen Tai made his way to the capital. The book changed. He started in on the world of miss opportunites and what ifs. I hate to say it but I almost felt he had more of a story to write but tied it up early.

message 15: by Sandra (last edited Dec 12, 2010 05:02PM) (new)

Sandra  (sleo) | 1141 comments I haven't finished it yet, but I can't imagine how anyone could say nothing happens, as the forward momentum of the plot is quite compelling. I love the way Kay switches POV in this tale. It makes it quite poetic and gives me a good view of the big picture. He always uses side characters to give us a view of events of other characters that we might not otherwise see.

I'm not familiar with the term McGuffin so I looked it up. The definition in Wikipedia is instructive, and it's a plot device used by almost anyone. One would think, reading this thread, that it's a pejorative term, which it doesn't seem to be, from the article. Alfred Hitchcock used them frequently along with other eminent writers.

Clearly the horses are magical creatures, and how can one complain of improbability in a fantasy novel? Also their clear importance in war comes from an understanding of how wars were fought at the time - mostly on horseback. The ghosts and their defense of our hero are quite improbable as well. I'll see how I feel at the finish, but so far it is ranking right up there with Lions of al Rassan.

Li Mei's storyline is important for its parallels to Shen Tai and also as a reason for his anger at his brother and for the assassination attempts on him.

message 16: by Sandra (new)

Sandra  (sleo) | 1141 comments I finished it and am, like Shel, totally blown away. Loved it, loved it all, loved the ending especially. Haven't written my review yet. Have to think a while.

Stefan, I see what you mean about the writing style being 'courteous'. I felt it as peculiarly oriental - filled with beauty, flowers, song and poetry with intermittent moments of extreme violence and bloody killing - I think I understand, for perhaps the first time, the oriental valuing of beauty, poetry, ritual, and courtesy. The hardship and violence of their lives made the seeking of these things necessary for solace.

Ah, sigh. I feel fulfilled.

message 17: by Janny (new)

Janny (jannywurts) | 1003 comments I WISH this book had been expanded into 2 volumes.

There was so much in the last third that I longed to see with a tight shot, intimate focus.

A beautiful story altogether, that (for me) came to a close too fast.

I now have to wait for the next Kay - usually about 2 years. Sigh.

message 18: by Ken (new)

Ken (ogi8745) | 1356 comments Sandra, what was meant by the horses was not anything physical. The McGuffin, the horses, were just a tool to get Tai from Koula Nor to the capital in front of Emperors and Empresses. Like they kept saying, the couldn't understand why the Princess gave him so many horses.

message 19: by Ken (new)

Ken (ogi8745) | 1356 comments I am with you Janny.
This book could have been so much more with another 400 pages. I swear he planned on a larger storyline especially with Tai's sister

message 20: by Kerry (new)

Kerry (rocalisa) | 487 comments I find myself uncertain what I think about the book. Parts of it I really liked, parts I'm not so sure about.

My review is here if anyone is interested.

message 21: by Kelly (new)

Kelly (sisimka) Sandi wrote: "I listened to the audio book narrated by Simon Vance a few months ago. I was seriously underwhelmed. I'd heard such great things about both author and narrator, I was sure it was going to be great. Instead, I found a book that moved way too slow and spent a lot of time with nothing happening. I wanted much more of Li Mei's story line. The main male character was an absolute bore. I wanted everything to connect sooner than it did.

Maybe I would have enjoyed it more in print."

This was pretty much my opinion of it as well. It did not move any faster in print. The beginning was lovely, but the pace just never picked up and while I was interested in what I was reading, it just went on and on and on.

I loved the characters, I found the shift in tense odd. But I did enjoy the writing, it's what kept me reading.

I ended up skipping chunks of it because I was waiting for something to happen, and in the end I prett much gave up and just read the last couple of chapters and found that I'd not really missed much?

message 22: by Allan (new)

Allan Fisher (funkstermonov) | 7 comments This was my first Kay experience and I must admit it blew me away. The writing is lush and vivid and I also feel the storyline tapped into my likes immediately. I have always liked the Oriental themes of honour, tradition and Martial arts prowess.
The characterisation was also deeply layered and the storyline moved along nicely. Although it was not always action packed the style of writing completely drew me in.
On the strength of this book I have bought a load from Amazon. I am looking forward to Tigana soon. It sounds as this book is considered his best.

A good choice for December....

message 23: by Kathi, Moderator & Book Lover (new)

Kathi | 3314 comments Mod
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the authors I always read and always enjoy, but this book has to rank among his best, in my opinion. Wonderfully drawn characters, personal conflict and growth among political intrigue and battle. Heart-breakingly poignant. There is sadness but moments of utter joy. Not all questions are answered but it still was an immensely satisfying read.

One of the themes of the book, for me at least, was the connectedness of lives, great and small, and the actions of one having consequences for another. I loved the way that threaded through the story.

I have almost no sense of Chinese history or of the Tang Dynasty, and so have no way to judge the "accuracy" of Kay's portrayal, but as a fictional time and place, it felt right.

The one thread that doesn't get "tied up" in the ending is Tai's steward at his house in Xinan. I found myself wondering about him, just a little.

The shifting POV and shifts in tense were mildly jolting but only caused me to pay more attention in my reading. I tend to read fast and sometimes skim and that slowed me down.

I thought the story moved along. In fact, this was a book I stayed up until 1 AM to finish.

I think my favorite Kay book was Tigana, although I also have soft spots for The Fionavar Tapestry and and The Lions of al-Rassan. I liked A Song for Arbonne, The Sarantine Mosaic and The Last Light of the Sun--all excellent but not top-tier for me. I have not read Ysabel yet.

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