Guy Gavriel Kay. Children of Earth and Sky. (Viking 2016).
Following his two novels set in an alternate Tang & Song dynasty China, in Children of Earth and Sky, Guy Gavriel Kay has returned to the world beneath two moons of many of his novels, most relevantly Sailing to Sarantium & Lord of Emperors, setting this new, &, as expected, wondrous novel some nine hundred years after that duology. In the continent that looks somewhat like a simplified Europe next to the Middle East, Sarantium has fallen to the eastern forces serving the god of the stars, Ashar, while the western empire, much smaller now, still follows the sun god, Jad. The map at the front is both important & necessary.
In this world, which he has so completely & complexly imagined, Kay introduces a number of protagonists, whose lives & stories will intertwine throughout this highly satisfying network of plots & counterplots (all orchestrated by the historically learned narrator, who assumes a mastery of the inner lives of these people but also offers commentaries on the ways of the (this) world, & the crises both individual & social/cultural that confront them all. The main figures, those whose changing lives will most propel the narrative, who come from all levels of their various societies, are: Pero Villani, a young & mostly untried artist of the city state of Seressa; Leonora Valeri, a young noblewomen with a past, from the same Seressa; Danica Gradek, a young woman archer from the fighting town of Senjan; Marin Djivo, younger son of a major merchant family in the lesser city state of Dubrava; Damaz (the name given him by the Asharites who abducted him from a village near Senjan when he was 4; this will be important later on), a 14 year old trainee in the khalif of Asharias’s infantry. There are many other figures, many of them people of power, such as the Grand Khalif Gurçu, residing in Asharias, once Sarantium, which he conquered & made the capital of the Osmanli Empire some 20 years before this tale begins; or Duke Ricci, the head of Seressa’s Council of Twelve, whose plotting propels the stories of Pero & Leonora, & thus those of the others, whom they encounter early in their travels, into motion.
To go into much detail about their stories would be to deny readers the pleasures of this complex text. Suffice to say, Seressa is a great trading city whose leaders are willing to do just about anything to maintain its primacy as the major centre of trade in its part of the world beneath the two moons. Dubrava is also a trading city, smaller, & nearer the edge of the Osmanli Empire, trying to maintain its place, & even increase its trading power, especially if it can also do some damage to Seressa’s. Jad’s Holy Emperor lives in the city of Obravic far to the north of Seressa while the High Patriarch of Jad lives in Rhodias, somewhat to the south. And in Asharias, the Grand Khalif sends out his army every Spring to try to break through the great walled city of Woberg to conquer the ‘infidel’ lands under Jad.
Spies are a necessary part of war & diplomacy in this world, & all states use them. When the Grand Khalif expresses a wish to be painted in the western style, Seressa chooses a young man without family to send to Asharias to do that job, & perhaps manage to spy & even try to kill the Khalif; they also induce a young woman to become a new spy in Dubrava. To get to Dubrava & thence onward to Asharias, these must sail on board a trading ship from that city. And fighting men, & one woman, from Senjan will board that ship to steal any wares from Seressa or Asharias (they are, after all, not pirates but heroes of Jad, dedicated to fighting the followers of Ashar in any way they can). From this conjunction much of the rest of the narrative follows, & it is multifarious, full of deceit, betrayals, battles, & confrontations both large & small – an extravagant tale full of tales, an adventure of bodies, minds, & souls in conflict.
Kay has perfected a fascinating narrative voice over his decades of constructing these marvelous tales set in an invented world with a history so neatly parallel to our own. It is that of a somewhat scholarly, but never too prim, historian all too aware of the vagaries, injustices, & just plain unfairness of life in such a world, yet one who can find moments & individuals that rise above the general chaos & loss. There is a place for love & loyalty among the ruins of a greater past. As an author, he likes people of intelligence & wit, & he finds them in a variety of places in the societies & cultures he constructs with such subtlety & nuance; & he includes a touch of the supernatural, which deeply disturbs any who experience it. All of which makes him one of the few truly philosophical fantasists writing today. Like his other novels set in a history just a few degrees off from our own, Children of Earth and Sky is a superbly entertaining, profoundly moral, & politically astute, novel.