In Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay has created a masterpiece of a Far Eastern culture, that of the land of Kitai. It relates a time of intrigue, political maneuvering, rebellion and change. The book's hero, Shen Tai, is suddenly thrust into this environment and must adapt to survive.
The book opens in a remote location called Kuala Nor. It is the site of an ancient battle where thousands of men were killed, their bleached bones still hungering for honor. Shen Tai spends two years at this site, during his time of mourning for his father who was a famous General. He spends his days far from all he knows and those he loves, burying the bones of the dead soldiers, both Kitan and those of the enemy force. Although he expects nothing from this labor, it does not go unnoticed. At the end of his time, two events happen. First is that an assassin, sent by enemies back at the Kitan royal court, attempts to kill him. Second, a Princess, who is the daughter of the Kitan Emperor but who was sent to a bordering country in a political marriage, makes a life-changing gift to Shen Tai.
Horses are the lifeblood of the armies and of trade. Most valued of all are Sardian horses. One is more than most men can ever hope to attain. The Princess sends Tai two hundred and fifty of these magnificent horses. This is a life-changing gift; a gift that will echo down the ages. Shen Tai must find a way to get to the Emperor's Court and give this gift to him for national prestige and honor. There are many who will try to stop him and gain the horses for their own gain.
The Court is full of rival factions, each vying for favor and the possibility of future honors as the Emperor weakens with age. In addition to the political relationships, there is also the effect of love. Men do anything for the women they love, but at the same time the women also are caught up in the intricate games of statesmanship that are the daily fare of Court life. These love relationships are finely honed and the reader must read more to find out what will happen in the rivalries that exist between men over love.
Kay has written a masterpiece. It straddles the genres of historical fiction and fantasy and in doing so, takes the reader on a fascinating and engaging journey. The characters are finely drawn and their intricate relationships are revealed slowly to the reader. The political intrigue and themes of honor, entitlement and military maneuvering is presented in a complex story that leaves the reader with a sigh of contentment as they turn the last page. This book is recommended for all readers.