Shen Tai is troubled by ghosts. Ghosts of fallen comrades, ancestors, enemies, strangers and memories all cry out in their dark kingdom of the night, plying his ears with their moans. After the death of his father, the honored Left Side Commander of the Pacified West, Shen has the arduous task of honoring his father by burying the bodies that remain from the Left Side Commander’s most glorious battle. With every body Shen lays to rest over the next two years, a voice in the night is silenced—until the day Shen awakens to the news that his empire’s former enemy has bestowed upon him a gift that proves “no good deed goes unpunished.” The gift of 250 Heavenly Horses not only makes Shen one of the wealthiest men in the Empire, but also essentially guarantees his demise at the hands of those who lust after the steeds—nearly every person Shen is likely to encounter in his life.

Only deft political maneuvering and trusted allies can save Shen from the onus of this gift, and two years among the dead have left him unaccustomed to the subtleties of the world he is suddenly a part of once more. As the empire plunges into a new age of political turmoil and civil unrest, the tremendous value of the horses, as both a trophy and a vital cog in the machine of war, proves itself a burden that Shen can only bear for so long.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s fictional rendition of the Tang dynasty of ancient China in Under Heaven reads almost as a historical document, provided the reader is willing to suspend disbelief in Shamen, wolf men, powerful ghosts and astrological mysticism. The prose has an almost lyrical quality, bowing to the strong influence of poetry over Chinese culture, and often offers contemplative turns of phrase that hint at larger truths. Despite some minor foibles, such as some instances of transparent literary devices that attempt to artificially create suspense, Kay’s sense of mythology and scale of story are strong enough to forgive any minor stumbling along the way. For anyone who enjoys a smart political thriller, a historical recreation or a good ghost story, this novel offers all three in an immensely readable union.

Tony Kuehn writes from Nashville.

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