- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 19 hours and 32 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Unabridged
- Publisher: Penguin Audio
- Audible.com Release Date: June 3, 2010
- Whispersync for Voice: Ready
- Language: English
- ASIN: B003PNRZR0
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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Under Heaven Audiobook – Unabridged
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I have to admit that it took a little while for me to get into the ancient China mojo. Once I was in, I was completely in.
You can always tell how much research he puts into his books.
I was a little let down by the end. He could have proved his point about all people and events just being blips in the stream of time AND still given us a better conclusion to the tales of the individual characters.
If you like GGK, then you will like this book. If you aren't familiar but like Fantasy/History/Literary blend, then give it a read or start with another of his offerings - Tigana, Lions of Al-Rassan, etc.
All in all. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I've already purchased the next book (not the same characters and set 600 years later).
Under Heaven is one of Guy Gavriel Kay's quasi-historical novels. From what I understand, he rigorously researches times and places- in this case, Tang Dynasty China- and then, while mostly staying true to what is known- transmutes them. He has stated that he cannot know the thoughts of historical figures, so many of his characters are based on historical figures. Also, he injects some fantasy into the milieu. It's not obtrusive, but there are ghosts and curses that flicker around the edges of this tale.
Shen Tai, is the second son of a famous general. Tai has had some trouble deciding what he wants to do with his life career-wise. He's been in the military and studied for the civil service- which is not an easy thing- along with sampling other professions. He may not know what he wants to be, but his ethics are fully developed. After his father's death, Tai decides to honor his father by spending the long mourning period burying the dead from a cataclysmic battle on one of the borders. This very personal action inadvertently earns Tai a gift that changes his life and unfortunately causes him to become a person of interest to ambitious and ruthless powerbrokers of the empire. Even before the gift, he has a vicious and powerful enemy. Luckily, his kindness throughout his life has also earned him some friends.
What we learn about Kitai, the fictional China, is fascinating. It's a huge, sprawling empire of millions. Countries have been absorbed, and there is peace along most of the borders. There is unimaginable wealth enabled by the trade routes, though its distribution may be uneven. To become a Mandarin- a civil servant- there are difficult exams on history and poetry. Most men are unable to pass even after years of study. The bureaucracy dwarfs even those of modern societies'. The military is huge and may or may not be a path for advancement. And women? With luck, beauty, skills, and intelligence, one may, perhaps, have some control over her life's events.
We view the earth-shaking events of the novel through the eyes of a few characters, most connected to and influenced by Tai in some way. They are not the ordinary citizens. They all have some or a lot of stature, or they would not be involved at levels where history is made. They are in positions to observe fragments of the game for power. It's not easy to see the entire picture. The characters are, for the most part, well drawn and revealed through actions and conversation. At this level of success, it would be believable that most of the players are clever. A few are ethical like Tai. Some are brave. Some are even surprising. There was one character, in particular, that earned my grudging respect despite my dislike. One quibble I have about the book is that I didn't find one of the most powerful players to be a believable character. This was particularly odd, because I cared about so many of the others. However, the one person whose actions causes the death of millions, was so petty and self-absorbed that I found it difficult to accept that he had been allowed to retain his power, despite his connections. Why didn't the royal family and the Precious Consort get rid of him before he ruined everything? They seemed to be aware of his acute shortcomings. (Did I miss something?)
There are four central women in the book, all of whom I found compelling, though, perhaps ironically, the most powerful one (the aforementioned Precious Consort) was the least interesting to me. The four women include two courtesans, Tai's younger sister, and a Kanlin (like a Shaolin, I believe) warrior. They are all strong women who buck the system and manage to wield influence.
Yes, there is some subtle romance and more happiness than you might expect.
This book was absorbing and difficult to put down. It whetted my curiosity about China during the Tang Dynasty. I would compare it to Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic. If you like your historical fiction tinged with a bit of fantasy, and if characters are important to you, then you really should read this book.
It is like being sucked into another universe, where I am constantly surprised to find ordinary items, flavors, smells. The time may be the far past, the location may be the other side of the world. Or this may be home, seen through wise understanding eyes. The eyes of Shen Tai - soldier, poet, exile. The burdens of life and the transcendence of love, the limitations of close proximity and the haze of the far horizon, in the heart of a good man.
Within the greatest of human events, look closely and you'll find people whose choices
affected outcomes; Under Heaven is about one of them. Because he was a good man, Tai did what was needful, but no more. He loved two women, had two great friends and two-hundred fifty fabulous horses, the key to stability in the Empire. How Tai remains true to his beliefs and loyal to his friends forms a fascinating, satisfying read that is more about self knowledge than it is about history or fantasy. As he took me through the story, Kay reminded me that life is transient, regrets are only memories seen through a dark veil,
and love is the rarest, most precious of treasures.