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Literature / Under Heaven

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Under Heaven is a novel by Guy Gavriel Kay published in 2010. Set in a Low Fantasy version of Tang China, it is a fictionalized retelling of the events leading up to the An Lushan Rebellion.

Kitai is a huge empire and the cradle of an ancient, highly refined civilization. Now ruled by the Ninth Dynasty, it is at the height of its power and magnificence. Shen Tai, the second son of a famous general, has taken it upon himself to bury the thousands of dead bodies left on a battleground at the far western edge of the empire, as a form of mourning for his departed father. His only company are the howling ghosts of the fallen soldiers. And then, one day, an extravagant gift is thrown into his lap: two hundred and fifty Sardian mounts, the "heavenly horses" of unparalleled speed and stamina which the Kitan empire endlessly craves. He must now return from his self-imposed exile to the heart of the empire, the sprawling capital city of Xinan, and take sides in bitter factional struggles that threaten to tear the whole country apart.


His two companions on this journey are the martial artist Wei Song, a female member of the secretive Kanlin order, and the perennially inebriated Sima Zian, the most famous poet in Kitai. Awaiting him in Xinan, his lover Spring Rain, formerly a courtesan from the city's pleasure district and now the concubine of the new prime minister, and powerful, ruthless men of clashing interests.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Wei Song.
  • Barbarian Tribe: The Bogü, dwellers in the northern steppes, practitioners of dark magic who eat the flesh of their enemies, not always after killing them. Some of them are nicer than others.
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Chivalrous Pervert: Sima Zian is an enthusiastic patron of the empire's pleasure houses, and thanks to his reputation as a famous poet, the ladies don't even charge him.
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  • Church Militant: the Kanlin, who are basically the Shaolin (except that they are vaguely Taoist instead of Buddhist and admitted nuns into their ranks). At the time of the story, they are a ubiquitous organization that hire themselves out as bodyguards, assassins (but only if the target is considered worthy of death by the head monks and nuns), and they act as impartial arbiters, recordkeepers and witnesses to negotiations of state.
  • Civil War: Roshan's rebellion.
  • Cozy Catastrophe: The real life An Shi rebellion led to the death of about 16 to 36 million people, lasted 8 years, and ended one of China's golden ages. Not that you'll notice this from the book looking at the experiences of Shen Tai, to whom the war appeared to be more of a nuisance than anything else. The fact was lampshaded in-story, noting that the Shen family were farsighted enough to prepare for dealing with the war and that they were fortunate in that the family compound was on the opposite side of the country from the front lines.
  • Deadly Decadent Court
  • Death by Origin Story: The book starts off with a bunch of graves being dug; Shen Tai is where he is because of his family's involvement in a (previous) war.
  • Disease By Any Other Name: How long should it take to figure out that "the sugar sickness" is a form of diabetes?
  • Distant Finale
  • Drunken Master: Sima Zian.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: As with all Guy Gavriel Gay novels, calling the cultures depicted therein "counterpart" is probably a little unfair considering they are almost exactly the same as the real world one.
    • Kitai: China (Kitai is the Russian name for China); The Ninth Dynasty: The Tang Dynasty (which indeed is the ninth dynasty after the Xia).
    • The Bogü: Mongolians
    • The Koreini: Korean
    • Sardia: Bactria, Whose famed Heavenly Horses (Ferghana horses) are also said to sweat blood when heavily exerted.
    • Tagur: Tibet, the name of their capital, Rygyal, is Tibetan for "[city of] Kings".
  • Fat Bastard / Large and in Charge: Roshan — who by the time of the story is too fat to move on his own and is dying of the Sugar Sickness (i.e. diabetes).
  • Gorgeous Gaijin: Sardian women command an exceptionally high price at the courtesan houses of Kitai, because of their blond hair and blue eyes.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Spring Rain and quite a few others. They are similar to Chinese Yiji or the Japanese Geishas, who are valued for their skills in conversation and music as much as sex.
  • Idiot Ball: As later in-universe historians points out, first minister Wen Zhou ordering the army of Xu Bihai to march out of the safety of the impregnable Teng Pass fortresses to engage Roshan's forces (which, as has been pointed out earlier by the general, was already crumbling with the strain of maintaining the siege) in open battle was probably an unwise thing to do. Funnily enough, Roshan's forces are so blindsided by the stupidity of Xu's attack that Xu almost managed to win the battle from sheer Refuge in Audacity — unfortunately, that was not enough, the battle was lost and the capital was lost to the rebels by the end of the week. The incident was based on the real life Battle of Tongguan.
    • Another in-universe example pointed out directly by Shinzu: Wen Zhou sending An Li/Roshan away from the capital in the first place, when his rebellious instincts could have been dampened by keeping him at court, lavishing honors on him, and waiting for him to die from an illness everyone knew he had.
  • May–December Romance: The elderly Emperor Taizu and the nubile Wen Jian.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Several key characters are transparent alter egos of historical figures: Sima Zian (Li Bai), Roshan (An Lushan), Emperor Taizu (Emperor Xuanzong), Wen Jian (Yang Guifei), Wen Zhou (Yang Guozhong), Empress Xue of Rygal (Li Wencheng), Xu Bihai (Geshu Han).
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Wen Jian is much smarter than those who take her flighty, spoiled persona at face value assume. Likewise, Shinzu managed to live to adulthood despite being the putative imperial heir by pretending to be just a hedonistic playboy and drunkard.
    • Also Roshan, although he mostly does it because it amuses him, and because he can — in a land where bad manners can be a literal capital offense, a man who can be freely uncouth in the presence of the emperor is powerful indeed.
  • No Pronunciation Guide: The novel does not bother to explain how the names rendered Mandarin Pinyin sounds (to be fair, you can probably go on the internet to check how pinyin works). Although Kay is generally good enough to name most of his characters something easily pronounceable for anglophones, avoiding some of the more exotic Chinese phonemes (like words with c, x, or q).
  • The Atoner: Shen Tai; he believes that the ghosts of those that died in a previous war will only settle if someone makes amends — by burying those slain in battle, he hopes to earn forgiveness for his family's involvement.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Wen Jian is universally acknowledged as the greatest beauty of the age.

Example of: