Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Cover of Children of Earth and Sky. A wrought iron sun with a stern, mustached face hovers above the title. The cover has an uneven, diagonal colour gradient, transitioning from bright yellow in the upper right hand corner to deep blue along the bottom edge.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Let's begin with a brief primer for those of you new to Guy Gavriel Kay's work.

Many of Kay’s books, including CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY [Amazon | Kobo | The Book Depository], take place in a secondary world that’s followed a similar historical progression to ours. Similar is the key word there; while certain events and characters have their roots in historical fact, all the place names are different, the key players aren’t necessarily the same people as their real-world counterparts, and the geography doesn’t quite match up with ours.

I often recommend Kay to litfic readers who’d like to try fantasy but are leery of the genre. He adopts a traditionally literary approach to plot and character, while the fantastical elements tend to emerge organically once the reader's accustomed herself to the rest of the setup. One might find a ghost lurking between the pages, or an old god the contemporary religions can’t quite seem to oust. Occasionally, a character does outright magic, but such scenes have become increasingly less common in the sorta-alternate-history section of Kay’s bibliography. He’s interested in the circumstances that might cause magic to fade from the world, and in the ways magic finds to cling on even as its influence becomes less than it once was.

He’s also a prime pick for fantasy-shy readers because he doesn’t really write series. You should read the three-volume Fionavar Tapestry and the two-volume Sarantine Mosaic in publication order, but everything else works perfectly well as a standalone--with the caveat that those of his books that take place in the same world are richer if you know something about that world’s history.

This is especially true of CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY, the furthest book in his alternate world’s internal chronology. Its setting is roughly that of Renaissance Europe in the late 1400s. It’s been about nine hundred years since the Sarantine Mosaic, perhaps six hundred since THE LAST LIGHT OF THE SUN, and anywhere from a few decades to a few centuries since THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN. The story deals with entirely new characters who navigate a discrete society, but said society springs from the foundations Kay laid in his earlier books (and, of course, from our world’s history).

The story follows several people caught up in the conflict between two Empires--one ruled by Jaddite sun-worshipers, one by Asharite star-worshippers--and two Republics who’ve managed to preserve their autonomy through a series of careful, trade-based negotiations with both sides. While there are a few luminaries around the edges, the principal characters are artists, merchants, fighters, and untrained spies; people without a guaranteed place in history. They exist along the edges and may achieve notoriety through their deeds instead of inheriting a title and its accompanying position.

If pressed, I’d call CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY an unconventional quest fantasy (or a quest fantasy through a litfic lens). Each of the characters undertakes a journey that brings them into varying degrees of contact with each of the others. While they begin their travels with different aims and in response to different pressures, they all share one overarching goal: survival, of body or spirit or both. They accomplish this by making connections, negotiating new relationships, acknowledging the politics in play wherever they go, and taking advantage of coincidence.

It’s this emphasis on coincidence that that makes the plot difficult to pin down in an easy, compelling soundbite. CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY, like all Kay’s other books, is concerned with the small moments that change everything. The chance encounter that sparks a realization that puts someone on an unexpected path. The offhand decision that spares them a dangerous encounter, or lands them in the middle of a conflict they never intended to join. The gut feeling that leads them to speak when they’d normally have stayed silent, thereby casting everything in a new light for each of the other characters.

It’s beautifully done, and it allows the reader to explore a world constantly in flux. One can’t venture a concrete guess as to where this all may end up because cause and effect are often uncertain. They flow logically from the setup Kay’s built layer by glorious layer, but they aren’t always predictable.

I’m awfully good at prediction, so I adore books that can surprise me. CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY did so over and over.

The characters, too, find themselves faced with a multitude of surprises and course changes. Each of them begins a fairly clear idea of what their life will be like. They may not have the details mapped out, and they understand that some goals depend on their ability to conquer certain challenges, but they know they’ll pursue a particular profession in a particular place for many, if not all, the days of their lives. Time and again, their changing circumstances force them to reevaluate their prior assumptions. They adjust their goals, or pursue new ones altogether as life shoves them in a direction they never expected them to go.

The women, especially, are pushed into spheres outside their expectations. Leonora, a young noblewoman banished to a religious retreat after she conceives a child, continually adjusts her plans and her self-defined limits as she adapts to each change forced upon her. In the beginning, she receives few opportunities to make her own choices, but as she fills the roles demanded of her she begins to carve out the sort of life where she can choose her own path. Her ability to quickly shift her focus and exploit small opportunities allows her to thrive. I always enjoy this sort of examination of feminine agency in a society that can be actively hostile towards women and their choices.

Danica, a raider, is less constrained by her social position because she has none. She hails from a culture that allows and encourages women to make their own choices, albeit with the assumption they’ll choose not to muck around with serious, manly business like raiding. Danica chooses the opposite and establishes herself firmly on the warrior’s path, though the nature of her fight changes as she encounters new challenges and makes new connections. Whatever life throws at her, though, she always makes the choice to follow this trail or that. She’s in charge of where she’ll stay, what battles she’ll deem worthy of fighting, and whom she’ll sleep with.

(She insists on keeping her dog close by, too. Everything’s better with a dog.)

While coincidence and narrative fluidity are amply represented in CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY, the book also showcases Kay’s longtime preoccupation with events and motifs that echo down through the ages. Pero, a young artist whose journey intersects with Leonora’s and Danica’s, is a clear echo of SAILING TO SARANTIUM’s Crispin. Pero travels the same route as his artistic forebear. He sees the same chapel with its crumbling mosaic of Jad Pantokrater1 on the dome. He finds Linon in the sacred glade and walks through the Hippodrome with its toppled statues to the chariot racers of old. And, most importantly, he travels toward Asharias--formerly Sarantium; Kay's take on Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul--to create a piece of art that could either make his fortune or cost him his life.

There are differences, of course. Pero lives in an era of artists rather than artisans, ensuring anything he creates will be displayed with his name attached. (Several characters in CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY are familiar with Crispin’s mosaics. None have any idea who created them.) He’s at the start of his career, barely recognized as a talent let alone a master. And he’s traveling to paint a khalif in Asharias, rather than decorate an Emperor’s prized sanctuary.

It echoes, and it enhances, and it diverges. Because while we’re meant to notice the similarities, this isn’t Crispin’s story anymore. It’s Pero’s.

Something along those lines can be said of Kay’s bibliography as a whole, in regards to its relationship to our world and to itself.

The overall result is an elegant, immersive text that becomes painfully emotional past a certain point. Kay layers his characters so skillfully that you don’t realize how much you care for them until some choice bit--perhaps only a single sentence--leaves you sobbing your heart out over the awful, or wonderful, or wonderfully awful, thing that just happened to them. It's a hell of a payoff, but it relies on a ton of groundwork.

The more I think about CHILDREN OF EARTH AND SKY, the more I love it. It’s an absolutely gorgeous book, though not a light one. I’ll freely admit I have to be in the right mood to really sink into Kay, and I took a ten-day break halfway through this one so I could better enjoy it. It was more than worth returning to, though, and it’s more than worth recommending to you now. I’m awfully sorry I missed his book launch for it (he’s a local who now lives in Toronto and often returns to promote his books at our premiere indie bookstore, McNally Robinson), and I hope he’ll be back for the paperback release so I can get a signed copy.

I’ll also gaze longingly at the ten leatherbound copies Penguin produced for promotional purposes and has been giving away via a series of contests. What lucky, lucky people the winners are.

  1. Kay doesn’t call him Jad Pantokrator, but the imagery is clearly based on Christ Pantokrator (which you’ll sometimes see transliterated as Pantocrator instead. Me, I like the K). While early Western Christian art nurtured the image of Christ as a kindly, welcoming fellow, early Orthodox Christianity depicted him as stern, unsmiling, and occasionally pretty scary.


  1. Replies
    1. 'Good' is quite the understatement, my friend.

  2. I have to be in the right mood for Kay as well, and so far that's only happened the once, when I read Tigana. Which I liked! And then I could never get through the first book in the Fionavar Tapestry series, and it's discouraged me from trying his other stuff. It sounds like I could be okay jumping into this one though, right? All standaloney?

    1. Yes, this one's totally standaloney!

      I should note, too, that I don't love the Fionavar Tapestry as much as everyone else does. I liked it, but I didn't click with it the way I've clicked with his other books. I'd say you'll do better to skip on over it and try one of the sorta-alternate-histories instead. SAILING TO SARANTIUM hooked me, this one's got heaps of potential as an entry point, and THE LIONS OF AL-RASSAN is a perennially popular choice among newbies.

  3. This is an awesome book, from a favorite writer.

  4. I identify entirely with your reference to the emotional investment in his stories, with moments that can tip you into tears of wonder and/or sorrow. A SONG FOR ARBONNE was my first Kay, and I cried several times during it. Every one since then has done the same (except for Fionavar, which is different). Wonderful stuff.

    1. I need to launch a full-on Kay reread in 2017.