Book Review: Under Heaven

Kay’s latest sweeping alternative historical novel, newly released in paperback, leaves Europe and focuses instead on Kitan, a land that combines elements of Tang Dynasty China and Mongolia. Shen Tai is the middle son of Shen Gao, a distinguished General who died in battle along with forty thousand other solders. The young man spends his days burying the dead on both sides of the battle, an action that caught the attention of the Emperor’s seventeenth daughter, the White Jade Princess. She awards Shen Tai with the priceless gift of two hundred Sardian horses, an act which suddenly elevates him to a much higher social status. When an assassin kills his best friend, Shen Tai hires a bodyguard to protect him while he attempts to collect his reward. The action spirals as those who would kill to gain possession of the horses begin making their moves.

This finely nuanced tale does an excellent job of showing how a well-intended man can also be a flawed human being as Shen Tai has a quick temper and enjoys mistreating his servants. Female characters are given less development and for the most part, seem surprisingly resigned to being treated as nothing more then sex toys or doormats. The vividly imagined culture including artwork, political structure and intrigue make this rich tale work despite these shortcomings.

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