Every time I read a new Guy Gavriel Kay novel, I become more solidly convinced that he is perhaps the most talented living author of fantasy that I have had the pleasure of reading. It is true, that I have in no way read the entirety of his oeuvre, and it is also likely that I have been cherry-picking his best works as I work my way through it. But the rest of the books are going to have to really suck to outweigh the brilliance of Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and Under Heaven.
Like his other works, Under Heaven takes place in a fictionalized version of a historical setting. This one is much more thinly disguised than the others I've read; it is impossible to mistake this setting for anything other than historical China (specifically, the Tang dynasty). In fact, I'd say that it's the least fantastic and most historically linked of his books that I've read. The story follows a man named Shen who... ah, I hate summarizing books when I review them, and I feel like any attempt would fall short. So I'm deleting what I had and skipping that part.
The book sparkles with Kay's usual adept characterizations and clever integration of fantastic elements with historical lands, customs, and cultures. The writing is generously sprinkled with poetry, and that helps lend the whole thing a sort of... thoughtful atmosphere. I became wholly absorbed with this book in a way that I haven't had happen in a very, very long time. I read all 600 pages of it over a single weekend (an unheard of feat for me) and was genuinely sad when I had to turn that last page. This was one of those books that had me reading the author's notes at the end just because I was loath to admit the story was over.
Perhaps my favorite thing about the story was the focus of it. Shen becomes involved with politics at the highest level, and tremendous, society-shaking events begin to happen around him. Despite the eventually revolution, the start of a decade-long war, and a fundamental shift in the country's society that happen during the book... they are never the focus of the story. This is the story of a man with a burden unasked for, a story about dealing with family and lovers and danger and your own smallness. It is not a story about war and revolution and blood and sacked cities and high politics, those are simply things that happen in the background of this one man's struggle and when that struggle finally ends... so too does the story. Long before the end of the war, without telling us much (if anything) about the large-scale events that we saw start. There are hints though, intriguing morsels narrated to let us know that his story isn't over... but THIS story is. It's a hard trick to pull off (and a hard effect to describe! Read it yourself and see what you think) but it is done masterfully here.
In short, this book is brilliant. I have nothing bad to say about it... at least not now, several weeks after putting it down. Instead, I find myself missing it like an old friend that I haven't talked to in too long.