Here's the first of my two reviews in the May 2010 Historical Novels Review. This review was selected as an Editor's Choice for May 2010.
Guy Gavriel Kay, Roc, 2010, $25.95, 559pp, 978-0-451-46330-2
Under Heaven is a "variation upon themes of the Tang", a sweeping look at China during the 8th century, seen through the fictional world of Kitai. Kay alerts readers up front that his stories are inspired by real people, places, and events, which gives him freedom – "if I base a book on a slightly altered past, the reader who knows what happened in that time and place does not know with any certainty what will happen in my story."
And though the world of Kitai itself is not real per se, the combination of inspiration and imagination is absolutely convincing. This is the story of Shen Tai, second son of a famous general, whose selfless act of respect and mourning unwittingly attracts the attention of a foreign court – and earns him a mighty gift that will change the course of his life, and the fate of the empire. "The world could bring you poison in a jeweled cup, or surprising gifts," he muses. "Sometimes you didn’t know which of them it was."
The world of the Ninth Dynasty is delicate, ornate, elegant, and complex, but also full-blooded and sweeping, and the breadth and depth of the story reflect this sensibility. The writing style can sometimes difficult to get past, as it can be rather jagged; that said, the pace picks up significantly halfway through, and by the end you don't want to put the book down. The story is well plotted, with a broad mix of interesting characters that you grow to care about, along with outstanding world-building.
Richly imagined, this is an epic story of a complex and advanced civilization, an intimate look at the life of one man, and a fascinating meditation on free will, destiny and fate, coincidence and consequence. Highly recommended.