Under Heaven is the story of Shen Tai, second son of a famous Kitan general, who mourns his father's death by traveling to the site of his father's greatest battle and burying the dead of both sides. For two years he puts the ghosts to rest, then he gets a gift to cement a treaty: 250 of the finest horses. One would be an honor. Five would be worthy of a gift to the Emperor. 250 is life-changing.
Shen Tai must head back to his former life to try and dispose of his great gift before he's killed for it. His travels bring him into contact with Kanlin warriors, warrior/poets, and eventually the Kitan court, where intrigue and treason is the name of the game. Shen Tai must pick his way carefully between the factions, all the while obeying the rigid rules of the Kitan court.
Kitan is based on Tang-dynasty China, and you don't have to look too hard to see Shaolin monks and Mongol warriors among the parade of characters. Kay has clearly done his homework, and the world he has created feels completely real.
He is equally strong with characters, putting together wildly varied people whose actions always make sense in the context of their world. You feel for these people, and I don't just mean the good guys.
Kay also shines in depicting the intricacies of the Kitan court, from the bureaucratic mandarins jockeying for power and position to the Precious Consort, a young girl wielding unimaginable power because an aging Emperor is besotted with her.
Kay skillfully weaves all of these threads together, creating a huge tapestry of a story that rarely drags. Whether you prefer sword fights, romance, or intrigue, you'll find something to enjoy in Under Heaven.