It took me a while to understand that UNDER HEAVEN was set in an alternate version of Tang dynasty China, so realistically was it told. Guy Gavriel Kay is not afraid of letting silences be eloquent, and narrator Simon Vance deploys his voice to give life to those silences and the slower pace of life in 8th-century China.
In a lesser author, this would become boring. It does not in this wonderful novel. Guy Gavriel Kay is talented enough to start with a slow opening, that nevertheless captures the reader’s heart by taking the time to allow the emotions of the moment to unspool on the page.
We meet Shen Tai, a young man of around 20, who is living in self-imposed exile from the Tang court for two years so that he can honor his recently dead father by existing in the arid uplands (where the Silk Road loops around the impassable desert of the Tarim Basin), burying the bones of dead enemies.
His father was a famous general. He was supposed to be a famous general. But something dark happened when he was a young officer. He went to an elite training school for assassins, altered course, returning to court to take the all-important-exams to become a civil servant.
But his father dies, causing Shen Tai to wander into his self-imposed exile, becoming a hardened veteran of a frightening place where ghosts sing every night.
Someone bestows a poisonous gift on him, in the shape of 250 magnificent horses. The rest of the novel deals with the consequences of that gift, and how Shen Tai uses his considerable wits to survive.
There is a love story here, of course, but one that does not have a predictable ending. For a cold winter’s night, you could do worse than snuggle under your comforter, mulled wine at hand, and listen to this tale. Five stars.