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Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay
Book Name: Children of Earth and Sky
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher(s): New American Library
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy / Alternate History
Release Date: May 10, 2016

Children of Earth and Sky, Guy Gavriel Kay’s 13th novel, interweaves several individual tales into a larger story highlighting the pain and opportunity and fragility of living between clashing empires in an alternate Renaissance Europe. Although Kay likes to say his books are histories that take a quarter-turn to the fantastic, in this case, he also gave epic fantasy a quarter-turn. Yes, this is a novel with a lot of characters, and its stories take place in a variety of cities and nations. But it’s not the story of royalty and heroes changing the world through force of their will. Instead, Children of Earth and Sky is about the little details of life that only become history when someone looks back, after those lives have ended. But in those details is a charm and power all their own.

CAVEAT: This is the first book by Kay I have read, despite hearing him praised widely and despite having other books of his in my to-be-read pile. So while there are connections between this book and his other novels, they were lost on me. If you’ve read his Sarantine Mosaic books or The Lions of Al-Rassan, you’ll enjoy the Easter eggs. Moreover, I can’t say if Children of Earth and Sky is a typical Kay work or not. So grain of salt and all that, but I hope you’ll find this review useful.

Two spies were sent out from Seressa. One, Leonora Valeri, a disgraced and abandoned daughter of a minor noble, has been sent to spy on Dubrava, a smaller trading city and a rival of Seressa. The second is a young artist, Pero Villani, commissioned to travel further east to paint the portrait of the Grand Khalif in his palace inside Asharias, formerly Sarantium. They sail on the ship of Marin Djivo, a second son of a prominent merchant family from Dubrava. The ship is raided by a group of Senjan reavers. When Danica Gradek ends up killing one of her fellow raiders, already delicate plans take on additional twists. And then there’s also Damaz, a young solider training to be one of the Khalif’s elite djannis, so that he may march on a fortress belonging to the Holy Jaddite Emperor before the seasons change. And there are quite a few secondary characters—a prince, a captain, an empress, a ghost, and more—thrown in for good measure.

Kay’s story ranges from alternate versions of Prague, Venice, Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Istanbul (“…was once Constantinople.”). As cities spy on one another, empires stretch their borders, raiders seek to hurt their enemies, and people are caught in the middle. To survive, they must make difficult choices, choices that will leave mental and physical scars.

I liked that Kay didn’t tell the story of the powerful. This is a novel about people looking to live their lives, not to conquer or change the world. Although I could understand if readers would got upset with the idea of a cast of characters who do not shape history but instead are shaped by it, witnesses to it, victimized by it. But this more personal, smaller scope story becomes more powerful in the end. Each character follows a unique path to some goal—profit, revenge, professional success—but that path is made up of little details, small steps. And it’s only when those threads are woven together that the coincidences and consequences of those actions take shape, adding a bit of detail to a larger history.

Of course, this sort of story is rare because it is so difficult to pull off. And the Children of Earth and Sky is not without its problems. Within scenes, Kay will use multiple points of view. And while all the primary—and secondary—characters are compelling and interesting, there were definitely times when they seem to speak with the same voice (especially when it comes to parentheticals). To me, this shared authorial voice weakened the characters a bit.

And there are also large portions of info dumping, explaining the geography or history or other subjects necessary to better understand the people caught in the middle of the various conflicts. While some might appreciate these digressions as adding local color—like visiting a historical site while on a road trip—I wanted the story to remain on the smaller scope of the characters, not the world at large.

This authorial voice, combined with narration, definitely slowed down the first half of the book for me. I have seen other commentary by fans who prize the journey over the ultimate destination, but I didn’t feel that way until the second half of the book when, to me, the authorial voice became more that of a historian, a chronicler who had fallen in love with individuals, who couldn’t resist telling their story instead of the larger history. And I am a sucker for an epilogue that shows me how characters end up spending the rest of their lives, no matter how long or short.

I finished this book with a huge smile on face. I loved the way that the power of the small details affected and impacted the larger whole. In the end, the narrator/chronicler/author had portrayed a true love for his subjects, and it would be hard to put down this book without also feeling that same love. I just wish the first half of the book, while interesting, had more of the emotional punch of the second half. But looking back, the joy of the second half was well worth my grumbles about the first.

Please leave a comment below if you’re a fan of Kay. I’m curious to learn if this sort of story—and my reaction to it—is typical. I’d love to hear how this novel compares to his others. Really, this is just a plea to help me re-rank my to-be-read pile because I know this is probably just the first book of Kay’s that I’ll end up reading.


One Comment

  1. Avatar Lady Ty says:

    Thank you, Eric, for an interesting and encouraging review and from what you have written I would think that in style this is a typical Guy Gavriel Kay story and as fascinating and enjoyable as ever. It is not often that you find such beautiful prose combined with excellent world building and fascinating characters.

    I am a dedicated GGK fan but the books I have read so far, Tigana, Sarantine Mosaic and Under Heaven predominantly take place around the powerful such as rulers or privileged courtiers or prominent families. They also include viewpoints and plots involving tradesmen or characters further down the social scale, as the changes at the top affect their lives, safety or well being.

    Kay has researched the background to all his characters or portrayed them from his imagination so well that they are realistic and balanced. Very few are wholly evil but even tyrants or harsh Emperors are shown to have a softer side, even if it has to be suppressed by the practicalities of power and control. Nothing is ever clear cut and we are shown the dilemmas of those in control.

    The Fionavar Tapestry is quite different to all the later books, as it is epic high fantasy with strong Arthurian overtones and follows that style, but does include a portal from modern day America. Very good but quite different.

    Kay often uses multiple points of view but for me this enhances my empathy with the various characters . Certainly there is usually info dump as you mentioned, geography, history customs,myth, but for me this is a bonus as it immerses me even more into the atmosphere at the time, as it happens. Also adds the interest of trying to relate it back to real history in some cases. I appreciate this may not be to everyone’s taste.

    There is usually only a little strange magic but it is subtle and just adds to the overall flavour.

    I do hope you will enjoy more GGK books, I am pretty sure you will still come away at the end with a smile, but warn an odd tear may well up and you will be left with plenty to think about for awhile after.

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