There are very few authors who manage to create fictional worlds of depth and beauty but are also able to people them with complex and real characters. In his latest book, Children of Earth and Sky to be released May 10 2016 from Penguin/Random House Canada, Guy Gavriel Kay, demonstrates the deft hand of an artist through his abilities to bring both people and place to life.
As is his wont, Kay has taken an era from history as his starting point and extrapolated his story from the events of that time. In this case he’s focused on what we’d know as the region from Venice to Istanbul – with especial attention paid to the Baltic and Eastern European regions – during the tumultuous times of the Ottoman Empire’s expansion into the region. While countries, city states, and regions have been re-named, they’re described with enough detail the discerning reader should have no problem identifying, if not their exact identities, their geographical locations. (Readers of Kay’s previous books The Lions of Al Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors will not only recognize the place names but find poignant references to the latter two scattered throughout the book.)
While the earth shattering events of the time are important to the story, Kay’s focus is on how their reverberations spiral outwards to impact on lives everywhere: from the proud merchant city states of Seressa and Dubrava to the small fortress town of Senjan and even to far away Asharias, home of the Khalif of the Osmanli Empire. It’s these events combined with fate, circumstances, or simply pure chance, that bring the four central characters together initially. From seemingly random beginnings, their fates are irrevocably intertwined.
Danica Gradek is a young woman from the fortress town of Senjan. The Senjans are condemned as pirates by the Seressa and Osmanli, for their practice of raiding merchant ships traveling between the two, while praised as heroes by the Holy Emperor for their willingness to fight the heathens whenever required. A warrior in a society where women aren’t supposed to be fighters, she would seem to have little in common with those who become her companions: Marin Djivo, the youngest son of a Merchant family from Dubrava, Pero Villani, an impoverished artist from Seressa, and Leonora Valeri, a young woman being sent to Dubrava as a spy for Seressa.
When Villani is commissioned by the ruling council of Seressa to travel to Asharias in response to the Khalif’s desire to have his portrait done in by a Western artist, the first stage of his journey is aboard a ship owned by the Djivo family which Marin has accompanied as the family’s representative. It also happens to be carrying a doctor and his wife traveling to Dubrava, although Leonora Valeri is only pretending to be the doctor’s wife as a way to enter Seressa’s rival as a spy.
When the boat is boarded by a Senjan raiding party, including Danica on her first raid, events conspire to change the lives of these four people, and their companions, forever. While each of their tales began some time earlier, this is the moment when they all converge. It’s the first of a series of seemingly random happenings, which will seed all of what is to come. There are many more chance encounters upon each of their roads that will cause both convergences and divergences in their paths.
What’s wonderful about Kay’s books is how he builds to each of these moments. We see how nothing, and nobody, exists in a vacuum. Not only does he give us each character’s story, showing us how a particular twist or turn brought them to a point, Kay brings us into the council chambers and courts of Emperors, Dukes, and Regents to demonstrate how decisions made in these lofty circles have ramifications for people perhaps thousands of miles away.
What makes Kay’s books a delight to read is how he never rushes anything. Stories unfold in an elegant dance with all the elements choreographed. What at first might appear as random and unconnected steps gradually reveal themselves to have been the opening movements in a grand ballet. When you step into one of his books you find yourself surrendering to his pace and then being caught up in the sweep and turn of events to the point where you’ve read over 400 pages without even noticing.
Accenting his artistry as a storyteller is the fact the language he uses compliments the tone and nature of his work. Elegant, descriptive, and evocative of time and place, it somehow manages to not only capture the beauty and splendour of the Khalif’s court in Asharias, but the horror and brutality of a battle scene. At the same time he is also able to convey the thoughts and emotions of his characters with such a clarity of detail they become more than just sketches on a page. These are living, breathing people with complicated motives which even they sometimes fail to fully comprehend.
In Children of Earth and Sky Kay works on a very broad canvas. Though he captures the scope of historical events, it’s his attention to detail which makes the book captivating. While a painter might consider these details peripheral to the main subject matter of a work, Kay brings his picture alive by his ability to bring them to life. Through his examination of those who appear on the edges of history we gain a better understanding of what the world was like during this time than we would by reading a book about the rulers and their generals.
Everything about this book, from the characters to the world created – including the subtle elements of fantasy that imbue it – makes Children of Earth and Sky a wonder and a joy to read. Having read it once I can guarantee you’ll want to read it again and again.