Children of Earth and Sky is the 13th novel by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay, and as is usual for Kay’s works, tells several stories alongside one another, interweaving and separating as his cast of fascinating characters engages with semi-fantastical analogues of real historical events. In this novel, we experience a look at something very similar to the Ottoman Empire, as well as 1400’s prague. As always from Kay, Children of Earth and Sky was at turns solemn, joyous, tense, philosophical, and above all so intrinsically real that it is so hard to think of Kay’s work as fiction, reaching as it does to greater truths about history and humanity. An absolute delight to read.
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…
As has become my wont for reviewing Kay’s fiction, I refer even less than usual to the actual plot of the work, so as to avoid even the potential for spoilers. Every year Kay publishes a new novel (Which is sadly rarely, because of all the work and effort that goes into each one, only 13 novels in 32 years) I’ve felt that every other piece of fiction is just fighting for second spot on my year-end list. While it does appear that there may be a single challenger coming later in the fall, as of this writing Kay is as solid a lock as he ever has been. Children of Earth and Sky was absolutely and delightfully on the same level as his other works of which I cannot sing praises highly enough. If you have ever read and enjoyed anything Kay has written, buy this book the moment it comes out.
There are a few very consistent elements that Kay includes in his writing that I keep not seeing anywhere else, or at least not as competently executed anywhere else, that really just push his works for me into the tremendous as opposed to the merely excellent. Easily the most significant of which is his treatment of secondary and minor characters. I’ve yet to read another author who can so quickly and succinctly make me not just know but understand a character. In a mere line or two, I can feel as though I know so much about any character, not because of a random factoid blurted out or exaggerated through appearance, but in a much more subtle way that allows you to feel comfortable you know more about how they would act and react in a whole variety of situations than could ever be shown to us. You see the way in which the character acts in a situation, and it is described so clearly and cleanly that it’s as though through the simple sketch of a few lines, you can infer the entire portrait. Even above his fantastic world building, his dedication to historical research, and just plain old skill at stringing words together into a story, this technique feels as though it’s replacing 300 pages of exposition without leaving out a single important thing.
Another character-related element that I love of Kay’s that was used to great effect in Children of Earth and Sky is what really feels like an acknowledgement that every character, no matter how minor to the current story, is the main character of their own. Several times in this novel, as we leave a minor character for the last time, we see a single paragraph that just quietly finishes off as much of that character’s story as we could hope to learn given the focus being on other events. These little windows into the way often the entire rest of that character’s life went are a great technique that I wish more authors would try to adopt. It fills out the world so much with relatively little effort. We’re exposed enough to what this person hopes or dreams in their time as part of the main story, that finding out even something as simple as ‘he did, eventually get home again and always remembered his time there’ or similar just sends you on to the next part of the story with a much greater sense of closure and understanding.
When it comes to the novel itself, with Children of Earth and Sky along with a few of his other novels (Most so ‘Under Heaven’) I’m actually put rather in the mind of The Decameron in terms of the actual effects of its approach. I coined the phrase in my review of ‘Under Heaven’ that in many of Kay’s works “Nothing happens, and everything happens” to describe the way in which he can set the plot of a novel in the middle of very large and significant events, and yet focus his story down onto only a few characters nowhere near the action, and through implication and allusion, communicate the whole of the larger events through the lens of the more tight story. In the same way that The Decameron used the framework of several young people telling each other stories to communicate a great deal about the philosophies and perspectives of the people at large at the time, Kay can take the ostensible plot of the novel and use it to communicate a much greater message and story.
So in case you haven’t quite figured it out yet, I really really enjoyed this novel, and very highly recommend it and any other of Kay’s works to anybody who has even a tangential interest in historical fiction or historical fantasy. In my opinion truly one of the greatest authors in the genre, Kay has once again proved why he’s one of only a very small number of authors I’ll actually buy in hardcover. Children of Earth and Sky has literally nothing for me to complain about except that it likely heralds another 3 years of no new novel by this amazing author.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this novel from NAL via NetGalley