All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay
As I write this, it’s early spring in Rochester, and those who live in the Northeast know what that means. Cold. Clouds. Wind. The false promise of warmth. The precipitation that no longer falls in feet and inches but instead has become a more annoying (and far less pretty) alternation of rain and sleet and hail that you know has to stop soon, will stop soon, but still Just. Keeps. On. Happening. Bleak, yes. But then here it is: a new Guy Gavriel Kay book arriving like an early harbinger of spring — a shaft of sun through the cloud cover, a cardinal’s trill cutting through the wind in the bushes, a sudden spike into the sixties. And suddenly you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
At least, not for a few hours, which is how long it took me to read All the Seas of the World, because when you start a Kay novel, you don’t want to put it down. Let the world do what it will; I’ve got characters to fall in love with, language to revel in, and an aching mix of joy and heartbreak to somehow balance and hold.
Kay’s newest fits into his triumvirate of novels set in roughly 15th century Italy (Batiara in Kay’s universe, which lies just a few steps sideways from our own), following several years after the events of A Brightness Long Ago and a little more than two decades before Children of Earth and Sky. Kay fans will therefore recognize a number of characters from those two works, albeit at different stages of their lives. And because it takes place in the same universe as many of Kay’s books, those with good memories will also spot a number of allusions to his earlier novels as well. Those who haven’t read Kay’s other works, meanwhile, shouldn’t worry; some references will make more sense or have greater impact if you’ve read earlier works, particularly the two in this trilogy, but All the Seas of the World works perfectly fine as a stand-alone. That said, nobody should read just one Kay novel. He’s created such a rich tapestry (a mosaic is probably a better metaphor given his frequent subject matter) of lives, images, and themes that one really wants to experience it in its entirety.
The time, as noted, is the 15th century, but more importantly for the novel’s world and its characters, it’s only a few years after the fall of Sarantium (Byzantium/Constantinople), when tension still seethes and violence still flares between the Asharites (Ottomans) who conquered the fabled city and the Jaddites (Christians) who still seek vengeance for their deeply mourned loss (with the Kindath — Jewish people — meanwhile, trying to find havens wherever they can). The physical setting ranges widely, with stops in a number of nations/cities, including Rhodias, Seressa, Firenta, Bischio, Ferriers, and Abeneven (I’m using Kay’s names here, some or all of which you can probably link to their analogues in our own world, such as Firenta —Florence or Rhodias — Rome).
As is often the case with Kay’s books, we’re faced with a sizable cast, but the lion’s share of the focus is on just two. Rafel ben Natan is a Kindath merchant and sometime corsair, forced as a child to flee with his family from Esperaña when the Kindath were violently expelled. His partner is Nadia bint Dhiyan/ Lenia Serrano, who was taken as a young girl from her home in Batiara by Asharite raiders and kept as a slave for a number of years. At the start of the novel, the two have chosen to take on a highly atypical but lucrative job — assassinating the khalif of Abeneven. Events cascade forward from this decision and soon they find themselves interacting with kings, patriarchs, dukes, and lords, caught up in politics and war on the world stage even as they must also deal with far more personal but equally as important concerns: family, their future, past trauma, their own relationship.
An easy shorthand for a novel summary is labeling it either “character-driven” or “plot-driven.” I do think one can make a nuanced point about a story in that vein, but such descriptions are obviously reductionist. After all, you can’t really separate the two. Without plot there is no story. Without plot nothing happens to the characters.
And things certainly do happen in this novel. A number of scenes are taut with tension as violence either threatens to break out or does; people face death, and some do in fact die; there’s murder, sudden and premeditated; fire and explosions; swordfights, abductions, unexpected reunions, unexpected liaisons, encounters with the numinous, a massing of ships, an attack by land and sea on a fortified city, assassinations, and executions.
But Kay more often than not eschews the more familiar or expected plotting techniques typically used to “pull” the reader forward. He will put characters, for instance, in dangerous situations but then take the focus away from the usual suspense element of “will they survive” via a quick flash-forward (or an earlier one) so that the reader knows immediately, or already, that the character will do just that — survive. Outcomes are important in these scenes, but more in the ways they change a character’s viewpoint or nudge them down one path rather than another or shade in just a little more character detail. Another way of thinking of it is that the plot evokes not so much the more traditional “what happens next” response but a “who are they now” response.
In a somewhat similar vein, Kay does something else relatively unusual with plot in how he often leaves the main characters and threads to follow for a time a character who has played little, or sometimes no role, in the plot to this point. I might call this a digression, save that implies plot is only what happens to “main” characters. But one of Kay’s points (I believe) is that everyone is a main character in their own story, and everyone we meet, even if only for a moment, plays a shaping role in our own. To follow such characters then is less an interruption of plot than a temporary shifting of focus, a movement outward perhaps from a smaller story to a larger one, but one still related. As our narrator says in one of the several meta-fictional asides, “Some tales are told, most are not,” and that holds true here as well, but Kay gives us more of those untold tales than most authors.
What I’m trying to say here (perhaps poorly) is that plot is important to this novel, but in a different fashion than one typically sees. Meanwhile, the characters, the warp to plot’s weft, are richly drawn and utterly compelling across the board, whether they take up the bulk of the pages, as with Rafel and Lenia, several strands of a few pages each as with a young Asharite stranded in a hostile land, or are given just two or three paragraphs.
I could go on rapturously for pages with regard to these side (as opposed to “minor”) characters. Folco, who unlike Rafel and Lenia seems to know exactly who he is (which also makes him both a good judge and predictor of others). Raina Vidal, the so-called “Queen of the Kindath”, wealthiest of them all, revered, widowed after her husband was burned alive in Esperaña, and now protector of her people, but with a hard decision to make about where to create a refuge for them. Nisim ibn Zukar, vizier to the khalif of Abeneven who finds himself frantically riding the waves of shifting events and hoping he doesn’t drown. Guidanio (“Danio”) Cerra, like Folco a character in the other books in this trilogy, here a relatively young advisor to the Duke of Seressa, though his softly elegiac older voice, as he recalls events from a later date layers over the book’s present moments an aching sense of time’s passage. Suffice to say, the book is replete with characters you’d be happy to spend an entire novel with, and in some ways, feel you have regardless of the pages they received.
For Rafel and Lenia, the true pleasure comes in watching each of them grow and blossom, individually and together, as the novel progresses. Relatively early on, Rafel tells Folco, the mercenary commander and lord of Acorsi, that Lenia “was a slave for longer than she has been free… it can take time to learn again how to be free. To know one’s needs and desires. To even imagine they matter.” Indeed it can, and what’s compelling is watching Lenia do just that, sometimes from the outside but also at times from within Lenia’s own self-awareness, as when she thinks: “She wanted to speak. It was not like her, but what she was like now was being sorted out, wasn’t it?” Her “sorting” herself is paced out in realistic fashion, in slow, measured steps; each encounter, each event giving her a chance to slide a foot just a little more forward. Or, to go back to the mosaic metaphor, each encounter a newly laid tile until by the end we can step back and see the whole of what she’s become. And even then, it’s not a finished product. People never are, after all — we’re always “becoming” — and one of the joys in reading Kay is the sense readers have of characters so fully invested with life that it’s easy to imagine their lives beyond the last page of our time with them.
Lenia is one of a number of strong female characters in the book (and in Kay’s overall output), exercising her ability to choose what she does, what happens with (as opposed “to”) her. She will, as she puts it, “own herself.” Raina, as noted, is clearly a woman of power. Even when a man acknowledges a women might control her own path, as when Rafel tells someone regarding his sister-in-law, “She is her own person… She can make her own—”, the woman in question refuses to passively stand by and have a man make that claim for her, instead interrupting to declare for herself that, “She can indeed make her own choices, and she will.” Even Folco’s wife, who makes no physical appearance in the story, is a powerful presence, referenced as such multiple times, as in this scene when Folco is invited to join a compatriot fighting the Asharites:
“My wife would cross the water and find and kill us both.”
Skandir smiled again. “I have heard she is formidable.”
“You have,” said Folco, “no idea.”
All of this is carefully grounded within the world as it is; there’s no hand-waving away of the true circumstances of a woman’s life in this time in these places. These women are all well aware that “People didn’t charge out of doors and down lanes at night just because a woman screamed in a port city,” or that “men could think they were invulnerable. Women… rarely had that feeling.” The men, the better ones, know as well the bitter truth of the world, as when Piero Sardi tells Rafel that Lenia is right to fear how people would react if they learn of her past: “A woman escaped from slavery is not the same as a man who does so. It is unfair, but much of life is.” Of course, not all men are so insightful, as when, in a grating echo of what women still are subjected to today, one such man ignores Lenia’s stated preference of sitting alone, telling her smugly, “Really? You’d have more company if you smiled more,” he said. “You’d be pretty if you did.” Let’s just say the encounter does not go well for him.
As for Rafel, he too must find his place, learn who he is and what he wants in this new world he finds himself in. Not a woman, but still someone whose life is circumscribed by nature of who he is — a Kindath in a world of Jads and Asharites. But also, now, an outsider suddenly on the inside. A man once just making do now a man of wealth. A man who finds himself in situations he never could have imagined for himself a year earlier: meeting with the High Patriarch, diving into water with a knife in hand, facing down disrespect with loud, vocal anger. As with Lenia, the pleasure is in watching him step out of the wings and onto the stage to exercise his newly-enhanced agency. Or maybe, more accurately, to step off the stage, to maybe set aside the shifting masks he’s been forced to wear over the years: “Rafel used three names, one in each faith, depending on where they were. He changed accents, birthplaces… The Kindath — perhaps they were used to doing so. The need to be fluid, adapt to situations.” Perhaps he might, finally, be just who he is.
Beyond character and plot, All the Seas of the World explores a number of themes, some of which Kay has delved into in prior books. The novel opens with the line “The memory of home can be too far away,” introducing the twinned ideas of home and exile, which run throughout the story. As noted above, both Rafel and Lenia are exiles. But they are far from alone in being severed from their home: a scholar escaped from the fall of Sarantium, a pair of brothers taken as Lenia by raiders, an Asharite abducted at sea, a nobleman exiled for his involvement in a plot, Rafel’s parents forced by circumstances to quickly abandon their home yet again, and the list goes on. Just as it did as well in Children of Earth and Sky:
Rasca Tripon and Danica Gradek… the old empress living with the Daughters of Jad on Sinan Isle… They are all exiles, [Marin] thinks, taken from what they were, where they were.
The impact of such forced displacement is long-lasting and far-reaching, buried deep in the soul and fiber. It plays out in a multitude of ways — Kay is too good a writer to portray such a complex experience as monolithic in either how it occurs or in its effects — as characters one after the other reflect on how their exile has molded them or those around them:
- “In his experience, people driven from home — or stolen from home — didn’t like changes”
- “His writing was a meditation… on captivity and exile… How enforced distance from one’s homeland over time could set an iron stamp on the soul”
- For some, the reality of exile, each and every sunrise, twilight, nightfall revealing a self understood as displaced forever — rootless, unhoused, alien where they live, depending upon the charity of others — that can become unendurable
Time and again these unmoored characters are seeking a home, are offered a home, are befuddled even at the concept of a home. Rafel wonders at the idea “of place, a home… Where should home be, in the world of Ashar, or of Jad? Where was safety?” When Folco offers him a “haven” (a word that appears multiple times in the novel) in Acorsi, saying “you may need a home in the world,” Rafel “said nothing. A home in the world.” The idea is difficult for him to even wrap his mind around. Given what we’re currently watching unfold, forced exile is an even more painfully poignant topic than it might have been otherwise (though of course it’s a constant reality, whether it appears on our screens or not). As to whether or not any of the characters do find a home, I’ll leave you to read and find out.
The ineffable mystery of the world is another theme that often lies constant but restrained beneath the story, though it bursts its bounds in one awesome (in the literal sense of the word) scene. Much of the theme deals with characters recognizing, in dialogue or interior monologue, how little we truly know of the world, of the people around us, sometimes even of ourselves. Most of the characters are resigned to this reality. Rafel notes that “life overflowed with things unknown” and that “There were mysteries everywhere. That was all right. You didn’t need to solve them all.” Lenia recognizes that “Your life… could bring you a moment when you could not explain what was happening, or explain yourself… The world was inexplicable.” Even Folco is forced to admit, when Lenia says We don’t always need to understand,” that the concept is “Not an easy thought for me… My nature is to need to understand. But I imagine you are right.”
The world Kay creates, like our own, is not only mysterious but also harsh. Unforgiving. Dangerous. Repeatedly characters (or the narrator) reflect on how “You could die so easily” or “Death could be so swift.” An arrow in the night. A cannonade asea. A blade slipping so easily into softly yielding flesh. Any of these suffice. Whether done out of fear, or anger, greed or lust, or because “you did what you had to do, as best you could judge, in a world largely without gentleness.” People tell themselves they are “not cruel or violent people at all, they reassured each other, just living in the world as it had been given to them.”
But Kay also is quick to show there remains room in it for more than our inhumanity to one another. As Lenia realizes, “There could be kindness in the world.” Despite the world’s harshness and ugliness, as one character puts it, “Forgiveness. Light. You had to hope for that, didn’t you? … You had to hope. What else was there?” And Kay has always been a hopeful author. Even when death strikes, it’s leavened with what has become one of my favorite “Kay-isms” — the lingering of a spirit for a brief while in a few moments consideration of a life lived and now ended, a few lines of gentle dignity, of respect accorded by the author, not in miserly or judgmental fashion but granted to a wide range of characters in acknowledgement of a shared humanity. Honestly, I would happily read a collection of all these moments from Kay’s works in a separate book.
Finally, the craft is, as expected, impeccable. The aforementioned use of flash forwards. The way Kay drops into the text so many seeds to carefully prepare us for what’s to come. Sometimes simply to introduce the characters we’ll eventually meet — “The Sardis of Firenta were trying to become as powerful with their own bank” —, sometimes to ready us for a character’s later actions — “He was greedy and ambitious—which was good for their purposes” —, sometimes to foreshadow major events I won’t detail here. The echoes of places and lines and people that make the vast mysterious world seem just a little smaller, a bit more familiar, a world where chance can play a role and things can come full circle: a farm, some olive trees, a pair of graves.
Echoes too of other books. Of lost family found. Of women going off to war. Of exiles. Assassinations and unexpected help. Of strange music and sung words unheard. Of artwork surviving across time.
The novel is meticulously crafted in structure, pace, language, dialogue. And all of that would be enough to make one admire the work. But more importantly, the book is crafted not just with skill but with heart. With a deep warmth and empathy for the author’s creations, each and all, so one is both saddened and gladdened in turn, moved and inspired throughout. Elegance and grace, mystery and wonder, the enduring gifts of human art and kindness — these have long been hallmarks of Kay’s work. As is too joy mingled with sorrow. Which is another way of describing this newest work: the joy of first anticipating and then experiencing it. The sorrow of turning that last page (or performing that last screen tap). Of course, given that I read the book three times, that sorrow wasn’t particularly long-lasting.