About two years ago, I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, which may be one of the finest fantasy worlds I’ve ever visited. Note how I say that: I visited Tigana, which isn’t difficult when you’re reading about a fascinating character like the courtesan Dianora.
This time, rather than seeing a parallel of Italy in the Middle Ages, I’m reading about eighth-century China, in the form of the fantasy nation of Kitai. This is the setting of Under Heaven, a story that promises to be very different from Kay’s previous works.
I must confess, I didn’t feel much from the young man who served as the main character of Tigana. Dianora, Brandin, and Alberico are the characters that stand out in that book.
Under Heaven is quite different in that regard. Shen Tai is a character that becomes more intriguing with every chapter. Tai starts out as the second son of a famous general, spending two years in mourning after his father’s death. For his mourning, he has taken to the border of Kitai and taken on the task of burying those who have died in battle. In his task, he is close enough to the border of Tagur that both nations note Tai’s actions. Near the end of his mourning, Tai finds himself given a message from the Taguran royal family–which now includes the princess of Kitai. For his actions, he will be awarded two hundred fifty Sardian horses, the finest breed of horses in the known world.
Before his mourning ends, he is visited by an old friend and an assassin who has come to kill Tai.
As events unfold, we get to see a great deal of the complexity of Kitai, just as we learn more about Tai. At first, Tai seems like a man who has trained to be a bureaucrat, even if he has some fighting skill. Then we learn about his past dealings with an exotic courtesan, his time studying among the greatest warriors in Kitai, and then we find out how he’s connected to some larger political schemes. Tai could come off as a perfect character, if Kay didn’t focus on his flaws. Smart, capable, and loyal, Tai is the kind of character I want to read about.
While I haven’t gotten far in the story as of yet (as of writing this, I’ve actually gotten through a hundred pages), I know this story is going places. When Tai gets to Kitai, sparks will fly and bombs will explode. I can’t wait to see what happens next.