Book Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: NAL (May 10, 2016)
Length: 592 pages
Any time Guy Gavriel Kay releases a new novel is a cause for celebration. Even with the understanding of how much work and time must go into each and every one of them, the waiting never gets easier! Known for his talent for recreating famous historical periods using fantasy, Kay’s books are all gorgeously written and painstakingly researched works of art, often infused with powerful messages and themes. I’d been looking forward to Children of Earth and Sky ever since it was announced and was beyond excited to finally get my hands on it.
Like many of his stories that feature fictional analogs of real places in history, this novel is said to be inspired by the conflicts and intrigues of Renaissance Europe. It is apparently set in the same “universe” as Lions of Al-Rassan, if I recall the names of the religions and the world’s twin moons correctly, though readers who know their history will probably recognize elements from the fifteenth to sixteenth century eras right away. For instance, the Ottoman Empire has been reimagined as the Osmanli Empire, and the most Serene Republic of Venice or la Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia has become the Republic of Seressa. Using this vibrant setting as a backdrop, Kay chronicles the lives of a disparate group of characters whose fates are all interwoven and connected like the threads of a tapestry.
There are about half a dozen key players in this epic drama. First, there’s Danica Gradek, a young woman from Senjan who joins a group of raiders to harry Seressa ships that trade with the Ashar. The Asharites destroyed her village when she was a child, killing most of her family and stealing away her younger brother. However, unbeknownst to her at the beginning of this novel, Danica’s brother was actually taken to be trained as a djanni, an elite soldier for the Osmanli Empire. Formerly known as Neven Gradek, he is now Damaz, brought up in the Asharite ways and ready to be deployed on his first mission with the army. There’s also Pero Villani, an impoverished painter who manages to score a huge commission to paint the portrait of the Grand Khalif of Asharias—but in truth his real purpose there is to spy for Seressa’s Council of Twelve. Pero is also not the only spy the Council has procured; another is Leonora Valeri, a noblewoman cast out by her family for becoming pregnant by a man from a lesser house. After her father had her lover killed and the baby taken away, Leonora agrees to be a spy in order to escape her family’s clutches and leave her old life behind. Passage has been arranged for her and Pero on a ship captained by the brave Drago Ostaja and owned by the family of Marin Djivo. As the son of a prominent merchant from Dubrava, Marin is no stranger to the dangers on the high seas, but his life is forever changed when his ship is boarded by a band of pirates. Among them is the Senjan archer Danica, and thus, our web of characters is complete.
A prevalent theme in many of Kay’s books is how history and people—their actions, their decisions, their fates—are all related. A single individual can shape the life of another a world away, based on how the ripples caused by events both large and small will flow through time. Children of Earth and Sky illustrates these patterns by following its characters “in the moment”, but the narrative will also frequently take a step back to look at the full picture. The author did something very similar in his last book, River of Stars, in which he explored a person’s life from multiple angles, going backwards and forwards in time to show how even the smallest gesture can have significant repercussions throughout history and affect multiple generations to come. If you’re not familiar with his work, brace yourself for a lot of point-of-view changes, present-to-past tense switching, and skips all over the timeline.
This makes it pretty much impossible to rush through any book by Guy Gavriel Kay. I’ve said this before, but his work is meant to be savored slowly, though sometimes that is by necessity and not by choice. Personally, it took me three days just to read the first one hundred pages, but only three more to finish the rest of this novel. I find that’s usually par for the course when it comes to Kay’s books, since the incredible amount of detail in his world-building often requires a rather long adjustment period. Still, there were a few issues that made Children of Earth and Sky a little more difficult to get into. First are the many distracting instances of info-dumping, which I admit I was surprised to find, since Kay is usually a lot more discreet when it comes to filling in the political or historical background. Second, there were some pacing problems playing havoc with the flow, especially when it came to character POV imbalance. It bothered me how some characters would feature prominently for a while and then just disappear for a long time, until all of a sudden they would come back, pushing aside others to fade into the background, and then the cycle will begin again. Because of the format, at times you also had to read about the same event two or three times as multiple characters would describe it from their perspectives.
As I’m fond of saying, some authors are simply incapable of writing a bad book, just that some of them may be better than others. Guy Gavriel Kay is one of these authors, and it’s not that I disliked Children of Earth and Sky, but I also don’t think it was his best. Still, despite the rough start, I ended up really enjoying this book. Plus, it’s hard to be disappointed, given the beautiful way the author writes. If there’s a lack of poetry or subtlety in this compared to some of his other works, then he more than makes up for it with the heightened tensions in this fantastical world of war and intrigue.