Under Heaven

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Reviewed by Robert W. Enstrom

Are you interested in traveling to a China that may have been a thousand years ago? This book gives you the chance to make that journey in the company of a young man named Shen Tai who is in search of an understanding of his own place under Heaven. As a young adult, he first follows his father profession in the army, then, after an unsettling experience with the supernatural, tries the life of a monk. When this proves unsuitable, he studies for the exacting civil service examinations, perhaps to follow his brother's path in life. But events intervene. His father passes away and he must chose a suitable way to spend the two years of mandatory mourning.
We join his story at this point in his life, toward the end of the two year mourning period. And it is the unusual means he has chosen to mourn his father that sweeps him up into the greater conflicts of vast China of his birth.

His father, a retired general, had regretted certain aspects of his service, and one of these regrets was for the dead of a battlefield that lies in the uneasy no-man's-land between two warring states. Because of its remote location and the contested nature of the land, the dead of this battlefield lie unburied.
As a tribute to his father's memory, Shen Tai spends nearly two years on this forgotten field of battle, caring for the remains of the fallen, regardless of which army they belonged to in life. And it is this act of remembrance and sympathy that brings him great rewards and even greater danger. The rulers of the enemy state notice his activities and they reward him with a gift so valuable that it put his life in danger and brings him to the attention of the powerful in his own country.
The book recounts Shen Tai's efforts to stay alive after this sudden gift--a gift of not only monetary value, but of political and military value as well.
The China of Shen Tai's struggles is a might have been China--or perhaps one that exists only on the pages of this book. But it is an interesting China, where the supernatural lies not to far beneath the surface. And strangely, it is Shen Tai's acts of sympathy that bring him into contact with this other world. First, when as a military man, he cares for the fate of two unmilked goats--an act that lead him to interrupt a dark ritual. And later, in his care for the unburied dead. Both these acts have unforeseen consequences that shape the future of Shen Tai's life, and the lives of those close to him.
If you would like to explore the fate of this one man in the uncharted sea of this far away China, then you'll have to read Under Heaven.

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