Every two or three years or so, Canadian speculative fiction author Guy Gavriel Kay releases a new book that never fails to amaze me. For some unfathomable reason, though the man is definitely one of the very best fantasists of his generation, if not the best, I can't help but feel that he remains, at least outside of Canada (where he is a bestselling author), one of the genre's best-kept secrets. With unforgettable titles such as Tigana, The Lions of al-Rassan, Under Heaven, and River of Stars, Kay has set the bar rather high throughout his career. And I'm pleased to report that Children of Earth and Sky is another memorable read that remains with you long after you've reached its ending.
Like the majority of his novels, Kay's latest is another captivating blend of history and fantasy. As such, it makes for a very accessible work of fiction and the perfect opportunity for newbies to discover why the author's books usually garner such rave reviews. Having read Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors is not a prerequisite for enjoying Children of Earth and Sky to the fullest. It is indeed a stand-alone tale which takes places centuries later. Having said that, there are a few nuances that might resonate a little more with readers familiar with the Sarantine Mosaic.
Here's the blurb:
The bestselling author of the groundbreaking novels Under Heaven and River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay is back with a new novel, Children of Earth and Sky, set in a world inspired by the conflicts and dramas of Renaissance Europe. Against this tumultuous backdrop the lives of men and women unfold on the borderlands—where empires and faiths collide. From the small coastal town of Senjan, notorious for its pirates, a young woman sets out to find vengeance for her lost family. That same spring, from the wealthy city-state of Seressa, famous for its canals and lagoon, come two very different people: a young artist traveling to the dangerous east to paint the grand khalif at his request—and possibly to do more—and a fiercely intelligent, angry woman, posing as a doctor’s wife, but sent by Seressa as a spy. The trading ship that carries them is commanded by the accomplished younger son of a merchant family, ambivalent about the life he’s been born to live. And farther east a boy trains to become a soldier in the elite infantry of the khalif—to win glory in the war everyone knows is coming. As these lives entwine, their fates—and those of many others—will hang in the balance, when the khalif sends out his massive army to take the great fortress that is the gateway to the western world…
Long-time Kay fans will be pleased to learn that the tale occurs about 900 years following the events chronicled in the Sarantine Mosaic books, twenty-five years after the fall of Sarantium. The worldbuilding was inspired by the Renaissance era, during the heydays of the republic of Venice. A commercial powerhouse, it must nevertheless deal with Croatian pirates, the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Dynasty and the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the city-state of Dubrovnik. Richly detailed, Children of Earth and Sky enthralls you from the very beginning. I'm not sure how he does it, but Guy Gavriel Kay once again came up with an incredibly evocative narrative and an arresting imagery. It's probably due to the extensive amount of research that the author puts into every project, but I feel that Kay captured the moods and nuances of his chosen setting to perfection.
I've said it before and I'll surely say it again. Kay's talent and imagination allow him to create a living and breathing environment that draws you in and refuses to let go. I don't know how he manages to do it, but Kay's worldbuilding is almost always a subtle thing. The setting never takes precedence over the story and he never relies on info-dumps and other such contrivances. Still, somehow, seemingly effortlessly, as the tale progresses Kay ends up with an elegantly crafted setting that never fails to dazzle the eye. Few authors can immerse readers in such a vivid manner, and Kay's eye for historical details and traditions imbues Children of Earth and Sky with a realism that is seldom seen in works of speculative fiction.
Guy Gavriel Kay has always possessed a deft human touch and his past novels are filled with memorable characters. And once more, it's the superb characterization which makes this book impossible to put down. As is usually his wont, the author came up with a group of disparate men and women, whose paths will cross unexpectedly and whose fates will be spun into a vast tapestry of love and tragedy. There is Danica Gradek, who lost her family to the Osmanlis and who will stop at nothing to become a raider and earn her revenge against those who took everything from her. There is Leonora Valeri, disgraced woman sent to spy in Dubrova by the Seressan government. There is Pero Villani, a young artist sent to Asharias to paint the portrait of the grand khalif and with a spying mission of his own. There is Damaz, a young slave now part of the elite djanni soldiers. And there is Marin Djivo, a merchant's son who'll be swept away by events he can't control. All of these protagonists are well-defined and three-dimensional. Each of them is going through important changes in their lives. Kay told me that as much as anything, he wanted this novel to be about non-powerful (not same as ordinary) people on borderlands in a time of war, trying to shape their lives (very differently) in difficult times. They intersect, some of them, with power, but that isn't the heart of the story. It was also important for Kay to balance the five of them, not let one character take over the book. Add to that his usual desire to also balance awareness of history and themes against characters, narrative drive, etc, and you have a complex and satisfying plot on your hands.
Although it's not evident at first, and it does take some time of the various storylines to come together, in typical Kay fashion all these threads do come together beautifully at some point and the author closes the show with style and aplomb. I loved how the decisions of minor players can nonetheless have grave repercussions that will shake the world and echo down the centuries. This being a stand-alone novel, the author does tie up all the loose ends before one reaches the last page. Though some endings are in truth new beginnings. . . Returning to the universe of The Lions of al-Rassan and the Sarantine Mosaic series was quite a treat and I wish Kay will consider giving us a book on the Fall of Sarantium one day. I did ask him about this, but he offered no answer. We can only hope. . .
Children of Earth and Sky may not be as sprawling a novel as Under Heaven and River of Stars turned out to be, yet it is one that still takes a some time to get into. Though the rhythm can be slow-moving at times, it is never dull. Indeed, I felt that the book was paced perfectly. The story progresses exactly as it should. From start to finish, with Kay's lyrical prose the narrative is a joy to read. I don't know how he does it, but it often feels as though Kay can convey more in a single sentence than most of his peers can in a full paragraph or a full page. Once again, Kay demonstrates that he is a master storyteller in complete control of his craft.
Award-winning author Guy Gavriel Kay has been one of my favorite writers for years. Hence, it came as no surprise that Children of Earth and Sky turned out to be another gorgeous and extraordinary work. Truth be told, I expected no less from Kay. No matter how lofty the expectations, he always delivers. I'm aware that it's still early in the year, and that authors such as Steven Erikson, R. Scott Bakker, Robin Hobb, Naomi Novik, and maybe even George R. R. Martin will have something to say about this. But as things stand, Children of Earth and Sky is now in pole position and will be the speculative fiction title to beat in 2016.