Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay
A new Guy Gavriel Kay novel is cause for great celebration and anticipation in our household, as he has authored some of our most beloved novels over the decades (by “our” I mean my wife, my fifteen-year-old son, and myself). A consummate storyteller and stylist (the two don’t always go hand in hand), his long-term consistency is remarkable, and his newest work, Children of Earth and Sky, finds him still at the top of his form.
One way to describe a Guy Gavriel Kay novel is that it’s a bit like peering at history as it unfolds at the bottom of a pool of water (think of the water as Kay’s artistic imagination) — you mostly recognize what you’re looking at, but thanks to the effects of refraction and distortion, it’s just a little off, both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The same holds true here, with mostly clear analogues to time period and settings. The time is roughly a quarter-century past the fall of Sarantium (i.e. Byzantium/Constantinople) and the proverbial “clash of civilizations” continues between the Osmanlis (the Ottomans) who conquered Sarantium and the Jaddite (Christian) nation-states. Particularly of interest in this case are Seressa (Venice), Dubrova (Dubrovnik), and Senjan (Senj — this one I confess I cheated on as I had no idea if this was even based on an actual place).
Seressa is the great power in this dance of three — rich, fat, and a little nervous, but happy to trade with the Osmanlis, sending its merchants (and spies) all over in search of ever more money. Dubrova is the upstart mercantile state, competing with Seressa but careful not to overly antagonize the great beast. Meanwhile, the Senjan, fierce foes of the Osmanlis, have nothing but contempt for those who trade with the enemies of Jad, and thus have no compunction about raiding/pirating their vessels.
This is the grand sweeping tide of history (if seen through distorting ripples): the rise and fall of cities and empires, the collision of religion and culture, a messy continent-striding tangle of politics, religion, economics, and ethnicity. But if Kay often sets his stories against a panoramic backdrop of momentous events and great figures (we meet emperors and empresses, dukes and khalifs for instance), one of the many pleasures in reading him is the way in which he moves the reader so effortlessly between the macro and the micro (more on this later), scaling down epic events so that history becomes humanized. The novel therefore focuses not on the great but on those caught up in their machinations, in the swirl of powerful forces (including natural ones) around them.
In Children of Earth and Sky, these include:
- Danica: A Senjen who is not, as she admits to herself early on, “an especially conventional young woman,” and who, thanks to her quite personal reasons for hating the Osmanlis, has aimed her entire not-that-long-of-a-life toward vengeance.
- Marin: The younger son of a prominent Dubrava trading family who also is more than a little restless in his role.
- Pero: A young artist chosen by Seressa’s ruling council to fulfill the Khalif’s request to have a portrait done of him “in the Western way,” though of course they have their own agenda.
- Leonara: Another young woman and yet another piece set into play by the ruling council, with plans for her to spy for them in Dubrava.
- Damaz: A young man who as a child had been taken from a conquered/destroyed Jadeite village and is now quickly moving up the ranks of the elite Osmanli army group — the djanni.
Each of these, and those whose paths they cross, are sharply, vividly characterized, their personalities often revealed by little things, as when Marin refuses to do what all his fellow merchants do — look back during their nightly procession at the harbor to check on their ships:
Marin does not. Small things. Small things you do to not be the same as everyone around you.
And when the characters are shaped by large events — a battle, a murder — it is usually in their quietly emotional response afterward rather than in the press of action that we learn more about them, in their expressions of unexpected grief or tenderness or regret, though I’ll offer no examples so as to avoid spoilers.
Each of these main characters is, from the very start, on the move from one place to another, one life to another, often — and often repeatedly as their circumstances and choice change — a life they (or the reader) could not have predicted. They are characters in flux, in other words, and besides being an attribute that makes each more compelling as a character, their in-between nature helps construct an elegant thematic architecture that seems woven throughout the novel. Empires, families, cities are themselves all in transition, and it is no coincidence I’d argue that Kay makes reference several times to states and people on the “border” of things — people and places occupying the edges or between-places of the world. We see this theme embodied (kind of sort of) in one of the fantastical threads that runs throughout Children of Earth and Sky, the ability of Danica to converse in her head with her recently deceased grandfather. And what is a ghost but an inhabitant of the borderland between the living and the dead?
Stylistically, there are few authors with Kay’s elegance and grace, whether one refers to his language, his sentence construction, or his use of voice, tense and point-of-view. The prose is always under control, shifting as needed, often lyrical with several wonderful lines. As mentioned earlier, he shifts the reader between grand scope of history and the more grounded domestic detail of day to day individual lives, and often he’ll achieve this by switching tenses or by intruding more forcefully into the narrative to zoom out in both time and space. For instance, when Danica and Marin enter the Council chambers, we shift immediately into a wholly different voice and tone:
“Not much choice,” Danica replies. We die, otherwise.” … They go in …
There are sixty-five members of the Rector’s Council as of this morning. There should be sixty-six, but one has recently died and not yet been replaced… There are other councils and committees governing Dubrava, smaller groups for day-to-day decisions. There are many decisions in a city-state with wide and varying needs, from quarantining some visitors against the arrival of the plague to dealing with information — or demands — from Asharias, to the need to arrange the remarriage of a wealthy widow.
This section goes on for several pages in this same wide-casting vision, often employing passive voice, as we’re informed that the Rector’s Palace has been rebuilt twice, that a subset of the population (living on islands to the north) dislike paying their taxes, that the daughter of another kingdom might have inherited that family’s madness, and more. Sometimes this omniscient voice will intrude to let us know what happened to this or that particular character years down the road. One of the results of that sort of narrative choice is that the reader has a sense that while we’re focused on a handful of characters, everyone we meet is in truth a character in their own equally important story, rather than mere props to further the five main characters’ tales. At one point, Pero feels, “as if he had entered into a story that wasn’t his own,” a realization that we as readers can attach to the unpredictability of what befalls these characters but that we can also read as a bit of a metafictional statement, one of perhaps several in the book, though I wouldn’t swear they were meant as such.
I could go on with more points, more examples of why Children of Earth and Sky is so good. The inner complexity of even the most passing of characters. The ways in which so many characters are playing roles. I could, would love to, talk about how painfully, beautifully, moving some of the scenes are — moments that slice right through you — but that would involve spoilers. And I could spend some time explaining why I could see some readers thinking the book moves a little slow, lacks the driving plot of some of Kay’s other works, or wraps up perhaps a bit too neatly or quickly. But while I can, if I squint a bit, see how those reactions might occur, I never approached feeling any of that. From my viewpoint, Children of Earth and Sky is yet another masterwork from an author at the peak of his craft — a wonderfully detailed and complex interweaving of individual lives and history that results in a fantastically rich and moving tapestry. Children of Earth and Sky is highly recommended, and I’m sure it’ll be on my top ten list at the end of the year.
I read Children of Earth and Sky several months ago and adored it. I should have written my review then, but Bill’s eloquent and supremely insightful review proved so intimidating that I allowed this to slip to the back burner, to my shame. But I’m finally writing this review, if only to remind everyone of what an amazing novel this is, and what a delightful Christmas present it would make for any thoughtful reader of history or fantasy.
Guy Gavriel Kay writes what he likes to call “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic,” and Children of Earth and Sky is definitely that. It’s also compelling reading, epic in scope but also closely personal. It’s set in a Renaissance-era analog of our world: Serassa is Venice, the Ottoman Empire is the Osmanli Empire, the Jaddites are the Christians, and so on. There’s just a little bit of fantasy spicing it up: two blue and white moons appear in the skies of this world, and the spirits of dead relatives can linger and enter the heads of their living descendants, speaking with them and advising them.
In addition to altered country and empire names, Kay has shifted around some historical people and events to fit the story he wants to tell, and inserted a host of fictional characters. Kay weaves together the lives of several fascinating individuals, moving in different parts of this world but impacting each other’s lives. Some of the most memorable: Danica, a young woman and a fierce warrior, fighting against the constraints of her time as well as against enemies; her brother Neven, kidnapped as a young child by Osmanlis and trained to be their devoted soldier; Pero, an artist with a commission to paint the Osmanli khalif and a secret commission to assassinate him; and Leonora, a disgraced young woman of Seressa’s upper class, given a chance to redeem herself by spying on Dubrava, who finds an unexpectedly significant new life.
Kay frequently jumps from one character’s point of view to another’s, as their individual stories weave together, separate and intertwine again. Often, when books are divided into several different plotlines told concurrently in alternating scenes and chapters, my interest is primarily focused in on one character and their storyline, and I become impatient when the author temporarily shifts to another point of view. But Kay made all of these characters and their stories absorbing to me. More, I legitimately cared about what happened to all of them, even when they were at odds with each other. Occasionally there was an odd repetition of a scene when the viewpoint shifted from one character in that scene to another, but overall Kay handled the omniscient narration and changing viewpoints seamlessly, inserting an occasional perceptive observation:
He was never in Senjan again. How can we ever presume to know what will come of our choices, our paths, the lives we live?
History does not proceed with anything like fairness or recognition of valour or virtue. Senjan was gone, the walls broken and smashed, on both the harbor and the landward sides, less than a hundred years after this time.
The richness and complexity of the world of Children of Earth and Sky is remarkable, the more so because it is made so accessible by Kay’s clarity of prose, insight, and sympathy for the lives of individuals caught in the relentless currents of war, politics and societal constraints. In the midst of frustration, fear and death, they create meaningful lives and form lifelong relationships. I’ll end with a comment from Kay in the afterword, which encapsulates one of the themes of Children of Earth and Sky:
We live among mysteries. Love is one, there are others. We must not imagine we understand all there is to know about the world.
Terrific review. I’m looking forward to reading this, which will be my first Kay.
I haven’t read any of Kay’s work yet, though it always comes highly recommended. Do you think this would be a good place to start, or perhaps Under Heaven?
The nice thing is his works are standalone even if they follow in time. That said, I do think it gives you a bit more if you read the ones set earlier as there are some moments in the ensuing books that will ring a bit more fully even if the novel is set decades or centuries later. In other words, it isn’t essential to have read them, but it will make for a somewhat richer read. And they’re all good, so you really can’t go wrong. That said, I’d probably start with Under Heaven and then River of Stars, only because while I do think the others are wonderful, River of Stars I’d call transcendent.
You’ve definitely sold me on this book, as well as all his earlier books like Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan, etc. I love the idea of depicting the macro through the micro, showing the sweep of huge events through the impact on individual lives.
that’s definitely one of his things.
I loved loved loved Tigana. The Summer Tree (a very early Kay) not so much, although it was still a decent read. I’m reading this one right now.
can’t wait to hear what you think