Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here the world is all the world may be

A powerful blend of historical fiction and fantasy, Kay delivers a great story about loss and honour. This story is about Shen Tai who, after spending two years in mourning over the death of his father burying the bones and being haunted by their ghosts, is sent an unexpected gift of 250 Sardian horses, otherwise known as ‘heavenly horses’. This instantly puts him in a position of power and Tai must decide what to do with this gift.

Set during a fantasised version of the Tang dynasty in eighth century China, Kay is able to create a majestic atmosphere.

I really enjoyed the role that poetry plays in the world. Poetry is really important and Tai meets, and then travels with a famous poet and they share poems amongst themselves often. I really enjoyed the romantic elements of this book, and that’s something I don’t think I’ve ever said in a book review before.


Book format: Kindle ebook
Length: 567 pages
Reading difficulty: Medium
POV: Mainly follows Tai and his sister Li-Mei but it does jump to other viewpoints
Person: Third
Chronology: Linear


Kay’s writing is magnificent! He can carry emotions well and as such, the impactful elements of this story really stand out. The poems featured within were really good, for the most part.

This book is infinitely quotable; here are some of my favourite bits:

There was a new hole in the world where sorrow could enter

a red violence was approaching from the east

Vengeance could give birth to horrors not to be spoken aloud

Branching paths. The turning of days and seasons and years. Life offered you love sometimes, sorrow often. If you were very fortunate, true friendship

Bitter wind blows battle smoke
Wild geese and cranes fly.
Later, moon’s disk in the water.
Plum blossoms mirrored in the river,
Until they fall.

It is difficult to feel that your life means anything under this sky

Red song of war arrows, red sun

The demons could triumph, take any man’s soul, carry it off as a prize to their own red kingdom


The story follows Tai mostly, who is a very honourable character and very interesting. Kay was able to make me feel is struggle and care about what happens to him throughout.

To me, this book should’ve focused more on Li-Mei, Tai’s sister, and Meshag. Their ‘relationship’ was tremendously interesting and I wanted to see more of this. I thought it was very unique.

Notable issues

A few of the side characters do blend into one another at various points. There wasn’t much unique about a lot of the minor characters which led to me having to stop and check that I had the correct person in my mind.

Kay does go a bit overboard with commas, but this is more of a style point. It’s also a bit long in the tooth sometimes but it’s a well thought out story.

Final thought

If you’re looking for dragons and wild fight scenes, look elsewhere. This story, and Kay’s other works are what I like to term ‘Grown up’ historical fantasy. It’s subtle and it blends historical elements with great characters along with an emotional story.

If you are looking for a book that makes you “feel something”, I’d highly recommend this, or Tigana, which is one of my favourite books of all time.



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