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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. River Of Stars is set in the same universe, but several centuries after the events of this book.

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, but mainly in comparison to what's usually expected from women in Kitai.
  • Altar Diplomacy: Tai's sister is made 'royalty', and sent north to marry a "barbarian" tribal leader, as a method of pacification; Lei thinks it's just politics, and Tai (when he finds out about it) thinks their father would have disapproved.
  • 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.
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  • Cain and Abel: Tai believes Lei ordered at least one of the assassins, in order to preemptively prevent him from interfering with their sister's marriage. This turned out to be false, but there were some hard feelings involved.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Ninth Dynasty survives, and the Ang Li Rebellion is suppressed, but several named characters die, and the Emperor steps aside in favor of his Designated Heir.
  • 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.
  • 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. (It's primarily because Roshan thinks the Prime minister isn't doing the best for the country, and believes that the Emperor isn't paying attention to governing, like he should.)
  • Cool Horse: Sardian horses, a.k.a. 'dragon horses'. "Legends said they sweated blood."
    You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of those glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank — and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.
    The Princess Cheng-wan, a royal consort of Tagur now through twenty years of peace, had just bestowed upon him, with permission two hundred and fifty of the dragon horses.
    That was the number.
  • 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.
  • Decadent Court: The reason for Ang Li's Rebellion — he believes that 'the common people' are being ignored, and the court is doing what it can to stay in power.
  • 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?
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: As with all Guy Gavriel Kay 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 a galloping case of diabetes.
  • Immortality Seeker: The Emperor; he has an alchemist on staff to try to make life-extension elixirs.
  • Mandate of Heaven: Toward the last third of the book, it's discussed whether the Emperor has lost this, due to the increasing friction between the Civil Service, and Roshan.
  • May–December Romance: The elderly Emperor Taizu and the nubile Wen Jian.
  • Mono no Aware: Shen Tai becomes very aware that — regardless of what he does — life will go on, and time passes as it will. As the page quote for the trope goes (which would be in the style of Zima, if nothing else):
    "Summer grasses—
    the only remains
    of warriors' dreams."
  • 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).
  • Red Baron: Ang Li, also known as Roshan
  • 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.
  • Title Drop: Twice, as part of the narration.
  • Wham Line: The one that kicks off the main plot is how many Sardian horses Tai received as a gift.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: The Emperor eventually decides to stop trying the alchemist's elixers, and retires to a country estate.
  • World's Most Beautiful Woman: Wen Jian is universally acknowledged as the greatest beauty of the age.
  • Worthy Opponent: Tai becomes close friend with one of the commanders of the last enemies Kitai fought; enough that he's willing to outright lend him his own 'heavenly horse'. It helps that Tai spent two years burying soldiers of both sides.


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