Series: Under Heaven #1
Under Heaven is a standalone book that usually gets listed as coming before River of Stars because they both take place in Kitai (Kay’s version of China) and River of Stars takes place after Under Heaven (but at least a couple hundred years after).
Under Heaven follows the path of Shen Tai after a Kitan princess from a neighbouring country (she got married off) gives him a ridiculously extravagant and impractical gift because he’d taken it on himself to bury bodies from several battles in a remote mountainous area on the border during the mourning period for his father. So for two years he dug graves all day long while the ground was unfrozen and listened to the wails of ghosts of the unburied bodies at night. I think I mentioned in one of my updates that he’s a bit weird.
He basically has to stay alive long enough to try to claim the gift and figure out how to keep it long enough to make use of it without getting killed. Along the way we meet Wei Song, a female Kanlin warrior who serves as his bodyguard. I thought Wei Song was pretty cool. At one point it’s said that "She was small, and lethal." We also meet Tai’s sister Li-Mei who I thought stole the show, character-wise. She gets to exemplify that bravery is acting even when you’re afraid.
There are lots more characters and events at the Emperor’s court and a rebellion and so on, but I don’t want to give everything away (hopefully I haven’t spoiled anything as it is). I liked the novel but I didn’t rate it higher because honestly, Kay has done better, and the prose in this book isn’t as fluid or as lyrical as some of his other books. I’m used to Kay setting a rhythm and the text forcing you to follow it. There were also several asides to discuss the history as a whole because the later part of the book starts delving into macro-level events rather than following specific characters. Rather the narrative still follows the characters but the scope of the text broadens and I felt some human quality was lost in there.
At least I’m slowly catching up on my Kay reads?
I read this for square #24 of the booklikes-opoly board, “Read a book set in Africa or Asia” as I’m considering Kay’s alternate version of China to be set in Asia. Since this book has just over 600 pages, I get $5 to add to my bank.