As I read the last page of this exquisite novel, I admit to shedding a few tears. Not because the story was overtly sad, or because my experience had ended, but because I had the sense of being a part of such beauty that I could not but be affected by it. Like being part of a choral piece so achingly lovely that it takes your breath away, this book touched me deeply.
When General Shen Gao dies, the comfortable life of his son, Shen Tai is interrupted. Tai elects to honor his father during the traditional two year period of mourning by retreating to the haunted battlefield at Kuala Nor, and laboring to bury the dead who had fallen there. His time amongst the ghosts of battle, where the bones and groans of the dead are indistinguishable between opponents, changes Shen Tai from a poetic student to a deeply introspective citizen.
One fateful day, two sets of visitors come to Shen Tai’s remote cabin deep in the haunted valley. One brings news that his honorable deeds have been noticed by the Princess of Turgan, who has bestowed on him a gift beyond imagination: 250 of the magnificent Heavenly Horses of Sardia. The other set includes an innocent friend and a hidden assassin, both of whom die before the purpose of their visit is exposed.
Tai’s life is altered, and he must learn how to navigate the treacherous labyrinth of court intrigue where his own brother sits near a seat of power and the women he once loved is the favorite companion of the most powerful man next to the Emperor himself. Enter into this a self-appointed ninja guardian, a sister used as a pawn in a game of imperial maneuvering, a beautiful courtesan who rules the Emperor and possibly the kingdom, and a bacchanalian poet of great renown, and you have threads of a story that is woven deftly into an exquisite literary tapestry.
Under Heaven was easily my favorite book of 2010, and definitely in my top 20 books of all time. I have enjoyed many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels (especially The Last Light of the Sun, another stellar work), but for me, Under Heaven remains a class unto itself. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys an engaging storyline, compelling characters, and beautiful, beautiful writing.