Children of Earth and Sky

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Cover image

Publisher: New American Library
Copyright: 2016
ISBN: 0-698-18327-4
Format: Kindle
Pages: 572

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Nine hundred years have passed since the events of Lord of Emperors. Twenty-five years ago, Sarantium, queen of cities, fell to the Osmanlis, who have renamed it Asharias in honor of their Asherite faith. The repercussions are still echoing through the western world, as the Osmanlis attempt each spring to push farther west and the forces of Rodolfo, Holy Emperor in Obravic and defender of the Jaddite faith, hold them back.

Seressa and Dubrava are city-state republics built on the sea trade. Seressa is the larger and most renown, money-lenders to Rodolfo and notorious for their focus on business and profit, including willingness to trade with the Osmanlis. Dubrava has a more tenuous position: smaller, reliant on trade and other assistance from Seressa, but also holding a more-favored trading position with Asharias. Both are harassed by piracy from Senjan, a fiercely Jaddite raiding city north up the coast from Dubrava and renown for its bravery against the Asherites. The Senjani are bad for business. Seressa would love to wipe them out, but they have the favor of the Holy Emperor. They settled for attempting to starve the city with a blockade.

As Children of Earth and Sky opens, Seressa is sending out new spies. One is a woman named Leonora Valeri, who will present herself as the wife of a doctor that Seressa is sending to Dubrava. She is neither his wife nor Seressani, but this assignment gets her out of the convent to which her noble father exiled her after an unapproved love affair. The other new spy is the young artist Pero Villani, a minor painter whose only notable work was destroyed by the woman who commissioned it for being too revealing. Pero's destination is farther east: Grand Khalif Gurçu the Destroyer, the man whose forces took Sarantium, wants to be painted in the western style. Pero will do so, and observe all he can, and if the opportunity arises to do more than that, well, so much the better.

Pero and Leonora are traveling on a ship owned by Marin Djivo, the younger son of a wealthy Dubravan merchant family, when their ship is captured by Senjani raiders. Among the raiders is Danica Gradek, the archer who broke the Seressani blockade of Senjan. This sort of piracy, while tense, should be an economic transaction: some theft, some bargaining, some ransom, and everyone goes on their way. That is not what happens. Moments later, two men lie dead, and Danica's life has become entangled with Dubravan merchants and Seressani spies.

Children of Earth and Sky is in some sense a sequel to the Sarantine Mosaic, and knowing the events of that series adds some emotional depth and significant moments to this story, but you can easily read it as a stand-alone novel. (That said, I recommend the Sarantine Mosaic regardless.) As with nearly all of Kay's work, it's historical fiction with the names changed (less this time than in most of this books) and a bit of magic added. The setting is the middle of the 15th century. Seressa is, of course, Venice. The Osmanlis are the Ottoman Turks, and Asharias is Istanbul, the captured Constantinople. Rodolfo is a Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, holding court in an amalgam of northern cities that (per the afterward) is primarily Prague. Dubrava, which is central to much of this book, is Dubrovnik in Croatia. As usual with Kay's novels, you don't need to know this to enjoy the story, but it may spark some fun secondary reading.

The touch of magic is present in several places, but comes primarily from Danica, whose grandfather resides as a voice in her head. He is the last of her family that she is in contact with. Her father and older brother were killed by Osmanli raiders, and her younger brother taken as a slave to be raised as a djanni warrior in the khalif's infantry. (Djannis are akin to Mamluks in our world.) Damaz, as he is now known, is the remaining major viewpoint character I've not mentioned. There are a couple of key events in the book that have magic at the center, generally involving Danica or Damaz, but most of the story is straight historical fiction (albeit with significant divergences from our world).

I'd talked myself out of starting this novel several times before I finally picked it up. Like most of Kay's, it's a long book, and I wasn't sure if I was in the mood for epic narration and a huge cast. And indeed, I found it slow at the start. Once the story got underway, though, I was as enthralled as always. There is a bit of sag in the middle of the book, in part because Kay didn't follow up on some relationships that I wish were more central to the plot and in part because he overdoes the narrative weight in one scene, but the ending is exceptional.

Guy Gavriel Kay is the master of a specific type of omniscient tight third person narration, one in which the reader sees what a character is thinking but also gets narrative commentary, foreshadowing, and emotional emphasis apart from the character's thoughts. It can feel heavy-handed; if something is important, Kay tells you, explicitly and sometimes repetitively, and the foreshadowing frequently can be described as portentous. But in return, Kay gets fine control of pacing and emphasis. The narrative commentary functions like a soundtrack in a movie. It tells you when to pay close attention and when you can relax, what moments are important, where to slow down, when to brace yourself, and when you can speed up. That in turn requires trust; if you're not in the mood for the author to dictate your reading pace to the degree Kay is attempting, it can be irritating. If you are in the mood, though, it makes his novels easy to relax into. The narrator will ensure that you don't miss anything important, and it's an effective way to build tension.

Kay also strikes just the right balance between showing multiple perspectives on a single moment and spending too much time retelling the same story. He will often switch viewpoint characters in the middle of a scene, but he avoids the trap of replaying the scene and thus losing the reader's interest. There is instead just a moment of doubled perspective or retrospective commentary, just enough information for the reader to extrapolate the other character's experience backwards, and then the story moves on. Kay has an excellent feel for when I badly wanted to see another character's perspective on something that just happened.

Some of Kay's novels revolve around a specific event or person. Children of Earth and Sky is not one of those. It's a braided novel following five main characters, each with their own story. Some of those stories converge; some of them touch for a while and then diverge again. About three-quarters of the way through, I wasn't sure how Kay would manage a satisfying conclusion for the numerous separate threads that didn't feel rushed, but I need not have worried. The ending had very little of the shape that I had expected, focused more on the small than the large (although there are some world-changing events here), but it was an absolute delight, with some beautiful moments of happiness that took the rest of the novel to set up.

This is not the sort of novel with a clear theme, but insofar as it has one, it's a story about how much of the future shape and events of the world are unknowable. All we can control is our own choices, and we may never know their impact. Each individual must decide who they want to be and attempt to live their life in accordance with that decision, hopefully with some grace towards others in the world.

The novel does, alas, still have some of Kay's standard weaknesses. There is (at last!) an important female friendship, and I had great hopes for a second one, but sadly it lasted only a scant handful of pages. Men interact with each other and with women; women interact almost exclusively with men. Kay does slightly less awarding of women to male characters than in some previous books (although it still happens), but this world is still weirdly obsessed with handing women to men for sex as a hospitality gesture. None of this is too belabored or central to the story, or I would be complaining more, but as soon as one sees how regressive the gender roles typically are in a Kay novel, it's hard to unsee.

And, as always for Kay, the sex in this book is weirdly off-putting to me. I think this goes hand in hand with Kay's ability to write some of the best conversations in fantasy. Kay's characters spar and thrust with every line and read nuance into small details of wording. Frequently, the turn of the story rests on the outcome of a careful conversation. This is great reading; it's the part of Kay's writing I enjoy the most. But I'm not sure he knows how to turn it off between characters who love and trust each other. The characters never fully relax; sex feels like another move in ongoing chess games, which in turn makes it feel weirdly transactional or manipulative instead of open-hearted and intimate. It doesn't help that Kay appears to believe that arousal is a far more irresistible force for men than I do.

Those problems did get in the way of my enjoyment occasionally, but I didn't think they ruined the book. The rest of the story is too good. Danica in particular is a wonderful character: thoughtful, brave, determined, and deeply honest with herself in that way that is typical of the best of Kay's characters. I wanted to read the book where Danica's and Leonora's stories stayed more entwined; alas, that's not the story Kay was writing. But I am in awe at Kay's ability to write characters who feel thoughtful and insightful even when working at cross purposes, in a world that mostly avoids simple villains, with a plot that never hinges on someone doing something stupid. I love reading about these people. Their triumphs, when they finally come, are deeply satisfying.

Children of Earth and Sky is probably not in the top echelon of Kay's works with the Sarantine Mosaic and Under Heaven, but it's close. If you like his other writing, you will like this as well. Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-02-21

Last modified and spun 2022-02-22