A review of Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016)
Originally published in Interzone
Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest is set in the same world as several of his previous novels. A generation has passed since the fall of Sarantium, which has been renamed Asharias by its conquerors. There is an uneasy stand-off between the victorious Asharites and the Holy Jaddite Empire to the west. The Grand Khalif in Asharias is intent on expanding his empire westwards but has so far been thwarted by the inhospitable lands of Sauradia that lie between his armies and Obravic, the current capital of the Jaddites. But year after year he sends armies west, keeping the Jaddites on the defensive and bleeding their coffers as they are forced to field armies in reply.
There are clear parallels between the world of Kay’s imagination and Renaissance Europe. Readers familiar with European history (or even just European cities) will immediately identify Sarantium/Asharias with Constantinople/Istanbul; likewise Seressa with Venice, Dubrava with Dubrovnik, and less obviously Obravic with Prague. Such similarities are I suspect an important part of what makes Kay’s world-building and his descriptions so powerful; they allow him to draw his readers into places that seem familiar to them through television, Internet, and other media.
But there are important differences as well. While the Jaddites, Asharites, and Kindath (who are mentioned only in passing in this novel) are analogous with Christians, Muslims, and Jews respectively, their beliefs are quite different. And Kay plays with European history as well, distorting and compressing timelines, to further differentiate his imagined history from the real world. Furthermore, Kay’s imagined world is one with a subtle thread of magic woven through it. It is less obvious here than in some of the earlier novels. Of course he is now depicting an era on the cusp of the scientific revolution: alchemists are at work in Obravic and the Emperor is delighted by technological toys. But the magic is still present in a grandfather’s ghostly voice, in the skills of a village healer, in the song of a long dead singer heard only by those with the gift.
It is a richly portrayed tapestry. In the hands of a less-skilled artist the world and its history might have dominated the story and dragged the characters along in its wake. But Kay superimposes upon this grand sweep of history a cast of more or less ordinary characters whose lives we are invited to follow.
Danica Gradek wants revenge for the death of her family and the kidnapping of her brother at the hands of the Asharites. He wants only to serve his Khalif and rise in the ranks of the Djanni, the elite Asharite force made up mainly of men who were kidnapped from Jaddite territories as children.
Pero Villani knows that he has the potential to be a great artist, but poverty stands in his way until an unexpected request comes from the rulers of Seressa. If he does as they ask – and lives to tell the tale – his fortune will be made.
Leonora Valeri has been imprisoned in a convent and her lover butchered by her family. She has nothing left to lose, so when Seressa’s Council of Twelve offers her a new life as their spy in Dubrava she jumps at the chance.
Marin Djivo is the younger son of a leading merchant family in Dubrava. He is weary of his life of womanizing, feels it is time he settled down, perhaps married one of the eligible young women of the city, and took on more responsibility. Then his path crosses those of Danica, Pero, and Leonora. Thereafter their lives weave together and are impacted by larger events in Empire and Kaliphate, opening up new possibilities for them and taking them to places they would never previously have imagined.
Kay clearly loves every one of his characters because he manages to make each one unique and memorable. And that is true even of characters who appear for only a few pages. We are presented with a rich tapestry of lives, and Kay manages to convince the reader that each one is important in the unfolding story of his imagined world. They are all carefully crafted individuals with their own unique hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, trying to live their lives as best they can in the face of whatever fate or the gods have thrown at them. He clearly cares about his characters . . . and therefore so does the reader.
If you have read any of his previous novels, you won’t need any more persuading. If you haven’t, you are in for a treat!