Canadian fantasy author Guy Gavriel Kay is always a good possibility for teen fantasy readers, but he has outdone himself with Under Heaven. Known for setting fantasy in a slightly altered historical context, this time he bases his world on China. Young protagonists coming of age, love, war and adventure combine in an epic story recommended to fantasy lovers and historical fiction fans alike.
Adult/High School–Kay’s latest offering moves into the rich territory of Imperial China in a fantasy era analogous to the T’ang Dynasty period. Shen Tai has spent two years in a remote corner of the empire, honoring his father’s memory by burying the dead–friend and enemy alike–and laying ghosts to rest. Introspective Tai recites poetry and remembers Spring Rain, a courtesan he loved and knows he likely lost when his enforced mourning took him from the city. And then he receives a gift of 250 Sardinian horses, and everything changes. Suddenly, Tai finds himself in the midst of courtly intrigues and political machinations; pitted against his own brother (the map and character list will help readers navigate the machinations). Kay’s almost stilted prose perfectly evokes a society in which every behavior is dictated by rules, and his own talents as a poet comes through in the poetry that characters frequently recite. Tai’s journey takes center stage, but others–notably Spring Rain, now concubine to the first advisor, and Tai’s sister Li-Mei, raised to princess and sent across the wall as a political bride, then caught in barbarian magic–both play crucial roles; all three are young and on voyages of self-discovery, and their journeys intersect in sometimes surprising ways. Gripping but stately in its momentum, with only small magic, this is a thoughtful, intellectual fantasy. Readers waiting for the next George R.R. Martin will find this immensely satisfying, even more so as the entire sweeping tale fills just one volume.–Karyn N. Silverman, Elizabeth Irwin High School, New York City