Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is my first novel by Kay, even though my wife has been a fan of his writing for as long as I’ve known her. I’m reluctant to pick up fantasy, unless it’s of the mischievous po-mo variety — which seems never to have been Kay’s bent. I think I mistook his seriousness for an unsophisticated earnestness, and laboured under the misapprehension that Canada was offering up a fey Robert Jordan to the world of letters.
Guy Gavriel Kay is most certainly not that. Under Heaven is a meticulously wrought thriller that tightens its suspense through the various levels of intrigue — sexual, psychological, military, historical — that work subtle manipulations in the Emperor’s Court. At times I was reminded of the best of James Clavel’s work — Tai Pan, King Rat; Boris Pasternak’s deep, poetic yearnings of the soul during the heart-rending sequences of war also came to mind.
Minor kvetch: early in the novel a sequence of disastrous events is foiled by supernatural forces. It only happens once, and unfortunately had the effect of putting me on edge the rest of the novel, wondering when, or if, this was going to happen again. I don’t think I’m spoiling it for the reader if I reveal that this intervention is singular — in fact, my own reading would have been much improved if I’d known. I’m surprised at Kay’s choice, and think the novel might have worked better if he’d manipulated the scene differently.
Regardless, this very enjoyable and moving novel has nudged me into exploring more of Kay’s unique ouevre.
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P.S.: Goodreads chose an unfortunate cover. If that had been on the book I read, I wouldn't have read it. I do judge a book by its cover, for better or worse.