PROS: Beautiful, strong, interesting prose and story.
CONS: Passive protagonist; quicker ending than expected.
BOTTOM LINE: A poetic escape for readers that leaves you wanting more.
Without a doubt, Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the top fantasy writers of our day. His work provides a lush, well constructed, and often poetic escape for readers of epic fantasy. Under Heaven is no exception to this, having an even stronger dose of the poetic than usual and strong historical fiction undertones.
Set in a mythical kingdom in ancient China, the story fluctuates between the personal and the epic scope. The author’s style and prose flow effortlessly with an oriental feel throughout the work as he weaves adventure, intrigue, poetry, and the events which dominate the story. Perhaps, one flaw to this book is the lack of a strong or active central character. It’s not what one normally finds in an epic, with Shen Tai, our protagonist, being more or less caught up in events and carried along start to finish. Kay begins the book by setting the main character in unusual circumstances that seem to bode well, providing a unique, capable, and likable character. But then, he seems to become a victim of his circumstances and never really moves again to the forefront in controlling the outcome of the tale.
That said, the events and intrigue and adventure all rolled together kept me involved and interested until the end, which in my opinion seemed to arrive a bit too quickly (ok, a second flaw). After being so well paced and well rounded through most of the book, the author seemed to decide he needed to finish up and tie things off, which he does, though in a faster and thus less satisfying manner than expected. I found myself hoping for a few more chapters and to know more about how things turned out for all the characters or to see them do more with their extraordinary talents. One thing that Guy Gavriel Kay does with his extraordinary talent is leave us wanting a bit more.