All The Seas of the World is the 15th novel by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay, and is the closest to a direct sequel of any of the novels generally marketed as stand-alones. Taking place after the events recounted in A Brightness Long Ago, a number of characters re-appear or are referenced from that work. Taking in places a more explicit storytelling tone than I’ve come to expect from Guy’s work, All the Seas of the World nevertheless captures his scintillating prose, his trademark ‘quarter-turn to the fantastic’ and all of the care and love in his characterizations that never fail to make him my most anticipated read of the year, any year that he publishes.
On a dark night, along a lonely stretch of coast, a small merchant ship sends two people ashore: their purpose is assassination. They have been hired by two of the most dangerous men alive to alter the balance of power in the world. The consequences of that act will affect the destinies of empires as well as lives both great and small.
One of those arriving on that stony strand is a young woman who had been abducted by corsairs as a child and sold into years of servitude far from her home. Having escaped, she is trying to chart her own course—and is bent upon revenge. The man who will bring the others out from the city on his ship—if they survive their mission—still remembers being exiled as a boy with his family, for their faith; it is a moment that never leaves him. In what follows, through a story both intimate and epic, unforgettable characters are immersed in the fierce and deadly struggles that define their time.
All the Seas of the World is a stand-alone page-turning drama that also offers moving reflections on memory, fate, and the random events that can shape our lives—in the past, and today.
It’s always difficult for me to approach a review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work. Aware as I am, how much research, how much time and care and craft goes into each of his novels, I feel obliged to approach a review with something like that same care. There is a balance that happens in my mind between wanting to write while my thoughts are most fresh, and wanting to let my experience of the novel sit for a while, to percolate and refine and distill. I never know if I’ve reached the correct balance point, but I’ve never regretted taking the time to try.
I could provide a summary of the plot. Simply done, and certainly interesting enough to drive some of you to the book. The blurb above does the bulk of the work in that regard, though one can always discuss how effective is the recurring theme of Guy’s focus on how people both small and significant can have much more or less impact on the events of the world than they would ever anticipate. Or how the parallels to history in his stories and characters give them an instant depth even to those unaware of the reference.
But the summary is scant on details for a reason, and even outside the desire to avoid explicit spoilers in a review, it feels as though I’m doing a disservice to readers by giving them any information about the story itself. I consider myself a reasonably skilled analyst and crafter of language, but describing the story instead of allowing you to experience it with the words and pace and tone with which Kay has crafted it feels rather akin to trying to describe the taste of gourmet food, or the feeling of witnessing an incredible feat of sportsmanship. You may get the gist, but the true experience is in the experience.
I could discuss the themes of the story, the underlying messages both traditional of Kay’s work, and those unique to this story in itself. There is, as always, that focus almost singular in its repetition on the message that none can know the impact they will have on the world, some lucky few may be able to know, perhaps later in life, of the importance they had, but many people can go on from the world never knowing how one single interaction changed the course of the world.
This theme feels especially important in the world in which we find ourselves today. It increasingly feels like more and more is out of our control. This novel was written during a global pandemic, which still rages, as we are bombarded with more and more information about the ills of the world, and it is so easy to feel helpless, like nothing we do can make an impact. And so in this place at this time, dwelling even for a few days, on a world where people who feel much as we do can know, or we can know through the narration, of the impacts they had, the lives they touched, is a salve against that feeling of helplessness. At least for me.
Another theme central to the novels in this world (which in addition to A Brightness Long Ago includes The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Sarantine Mosaic, and Children of Earth and Sky) is that of belonging. Of exile and wandering, and the seeking of a place in the world to make a life for yourself and those you love.
The journey for Rafel, and even more so for Lenia, people whose place in the world exists but precariously, as they question and seek and hopefully find a life with which they can make peace, in which they can find peace, is a fraught one, but all the more beautiful for it.
I’ve described the plot of Kay’s novels in the past using the phrase ‘nothing happens, and everything happens’ and that is perhaps the most true of all in All the Seas of the World. Major events run throughout the story. An assassination, murders, a war, life and death on a scale of thousands. And we do see some of these events, we hear of others, we experience some the same way new planets are discovered, not by seeing them, but by understanding they must be there by the effect they have on the things we can see.
Instead, much of the focus stays on these people, these specific individuals, whether they’re a famous warlord or general, the uncrowned queen of a people in exile, or a merchant’s guard. You come to know them, to love or to hate them, and most of all, to care, one way or the other, what happens to them.
I’ve seen a few reviews of this novel that criticize Kay’s tendency to tell us what happens to some of these people after they leave the orbit of this story and these people. There’s something to be said for allowing us to imagine, to wonder what might become of some of these people, but at the same time, this is a world that exists, and the things that happen are the things that are, in some way, meant to happen. Of all the things I love about Kay’s writing, the thing I’ve come to love the most is these glimpses down the rest of time for these characters.
It’s a common and well understood concept in the art of entertainment to leave the audience wanting more. If they enjoy themselves, but aren’t fully satisfied, that may drive them back for more. While this is certainly true, I also think there is something to be greatly appreciated in an experience that is exactly enough. A meal that leaves you content, satiated, relaxed. There aren’t any leftovers, but you also couldn’t possibly have room for dessert. The kind of meal that gives a languor afterwards, to move from the table to the couch or the bed, and just repose, thinking about the experience.
That is what Kay provides for me with his tendency to close off those loops, to tie things off with a bow, to take a moment, as a player exits stage left, to tell us, because he knows we want to know, where the rest of the course of their life takes them. Often it’s to live a peaceful life free of entanglements in the greater affairs of the world, and that is just as satisfying to me as those who come to a tragic end, or otherwise. The satisfaction is in knowing, because as much as I enjoy theorycrafting, and imagining the possibilities of what happens next, I have too much respect for the craft and care in Kay’s work to want to know anything other than the ‘right’ one.
I always feel like I’ve both said too much and not come close to saying enough in these reviews, so much as I try to balance the desire to write them as quickly as possible while also wanting to dwell on the experience as long as possible before I put words to paper, I’ll try to strike a similar balance with the review.
All the Seas of the World is a tremendous work. While I do believe that some benefit would come from reading A Brightness Long Ago first, in order to more fully understand some of the references, and asides, you also definitely do not need to feel obliged. The story stands on its own very well. And if there are references made by the characters, scant descriptions of greater events of the past about which you’d love to know more, I suppose it turns out that Kay has also found a way to leave you wanting more after all.
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