Monday, 9 January 2017

Review: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

It wasn't as if Seressa was sunny and warm in late autumn. Indeed, if he was being honest he'd have to say his city on its lagoon could be colder than Obravic. Fog and damp that could find your chest and bones, even in a palace on the Great Canal. There weren't enough fireplaces in the world, Orso Faleri was thinking, to entirely ease a wet autumn or winter night back home.
Even so, even so. You felt the cold more when you were away. Men were like that, the world was. An unfamiliar house among strangers, darkness having descended to the sound of rain. Poets wrote about such things.

So does Guy Gavriel Kay, who is also a poet (he has published a poetry book in addition to several novels).

I was first introduced to Kay's novels around 2000, when my boyfriend at the time gave me ”The Lions of Al-Rassan” to read. It was one of the first fantasy novels I ever read, but he knew what he was doing: I fell in love with the book, and Kay quickly became one of my favourite authors.

And the boyfriend? Reader, I married him. ūüėä

Kay’s books are classified as fantasy mostly because they are set in fictional worlds inspired by bygone cultures/eras/historical events. In ”Children”, the setting resembles the Renaissance Europe. Most of his books have an additional fantasy element, but that is usually something – a ghost, say, or an ability to communicate with a dead ancestor – that the mystic in me could easily believe to be possible (the sceptic in me might disagree), for We must not imagine we understand all there is to know about the world”.

But I've explained before what makes Kay's books perfect for me and why he is the only fantasy author whose work I still consistently follow, so I won't repeat that but will go on to the book, ”Children of Earth and Sky”, one of my holiday reads and one of the best books I read in 2016.

Since her baby brother was kidnapped, her father and older brother slain by Osmanli troops, Danica Gradek has lived for revenge. Although women rarely fight, the skilled archer joins a raiding party of legendary Senjan warriors.

Leonora Valeri, a disgraced daughter of a wealthy aristocrat, is given a chance to escape confinement in a religious house and take control of her life – if she agrees to a pretend marriage with a man she does not know... and becomes a spy.

Pero Villani, a young artist from the fabled city state Seressa is sent to paint a portrait of the Grand Khalif of the Osmanli Empire. There is an underlying mission, but succeeding in it would end not only the Khalif's life.

Marin Djivo, a merchant from Dubrava, is transporting cargo and passengers when pirates board his ship. Swords are drawn, arrows fired… and destinies irrevocably entangled.

As in all of Kay's books, empires rise and fall and armies march to war. Plots are hatched, power games are played, and few care about the costs.
Yet the outcome of everything could depend on whether it rains or not. (We are children of earth and sky, after all.)

I don’t want to say more about the plot for fear of spoilers, but as is typical of Kay's novels, events take place against upheavals that shape the world, yet the focus is always on individuals and their lives – and the changes they undergo. These passages illustrate the idea perfectly:

The world is a gameboard, an Espera√Īan poet had declared, in still celebrated lines, centuries ago. The pieces are moved, they do not control themselves. They are placed opposite each other, or beside. They are allies or enemies, of higher or lower rank. They die or they survive. One player wins and then there is another game on the board.
Even so, the rise and fall of fortune for empires, kingdoms, republics, warring faiths, men and women – their heartaches, losses, loves, undying rage, delight and wonder, pain and birth and death – all these are intensely real to them, not simply images in a poem, however brilliant the poet might have been.
The dead (with exceptions impossibly rare) are gone from us. They are buried with honour, burned, thrown into the sea, left on gibbets or in fields for animals and carrion birds. One needs to stand far away or look with a very cold eye, to see all this roiling movement, this suffering, agitation, as pieces only, moved in some game.

We are tossed around in the often violent current of history, but sometimes a single individual, and even a seemingly small deed (or a decision or a dream or a hunch), can change the course of history and impact the lives of many. I can’t put it into words, but there is something about this element that makes Kay’s books both larger than life yet so very human. Perhaps what I like so much is the comfort in the thought that we are all a part of something... yet very, very small parts. (And it’s all very random anyway.)

There are other familiar elements: beautiful friendships, love and loyalty, courage and honour, kindness and tenderness that sometimes emerge even in the most unexpected places. And, in the midst of all that turmoil, when empires come tumbling down and the world around us changes, these are what truly matter. ”Children” also includes references to Kay's earlier works, particularly ”The Sarantine Mosaic”. You don't need to read his other books in order to enjoy this one, but the references will likely delight the fans (they did me).

Then there is the language, beautiful as always. I've mentioned before that I am a fan of Kay's lyrical, dramatic style. I often find myself rereading a sentence or a paragraph just for the pleasure of it, to savour it.

While I would not rate this among Kay's best, it is still an excellent novel. I had some trouble immersing myself in the book the way I want to, even though it was the holidays and I had more time to read than usual. It may be that my concentration lagged a bit, because my daughter was ill and I had my own health concerns. It also seemed to me that it took some time for the story to get going – I had a feeling I had only just started the book when, in fact, I had already devoured more than half and would have expected there to be more rising tension by that point. There was action and adventure, certainly, but the pacing was perhaps somewhat unconventional. Even when I was half-way through the book, I would not have been able to describe the plot because I did not know how the story lines connected. On the other hand, this also meant that I (mostly) could not predict what would happen, and that I enjoyed very much.

I may have mentioned that I am an emotional reader – feelings are what I want, perhaps more than anything else, from a book. Lately, few books have managed to evoke strong feelings. (I have theories as to why, but I am not fond of them as they would indicate that I've become older and… I want to say wiser, naturally, but the more correct word here is perhaps more cynical, but I have sworn never to become that… so, less emotional? No, that isn’t any better! Let's say more balanced and experienced. Or maybe wiser is the right one, after all? Oh, words, those slippery bastards!)

Anyway. ”Children” did bring tears to my eyes. This happened a couple of times towards the end, which was expected, but also once long before that, quite unexpectedly (and therefore even more wonderfully). I sat there, all misty-eyed, and had to stop reading for a moment. And I thought – this is what I want from a book! This is why I love reading.


  1. Hi Ulla,

    what a lovely, wonderful and heartfelt review. That alone moved and touched me deeply, and is a great motivation to read "Children of Earth and Sky" :).
    And just as an aside - excellent choice of boyfriend/husband; books are a great indicator. I think I first fell for my husband when we spent the evening in the pub in deep discussion over "The Lord of the Rings", while my then-boyfriend sat beside us with his eyes slowly glazing over :D. And remember who introduced us to Guy Gavriel Kay - good friends from Finland :), you might know them.
    Also - wiser is a good word. As is balanced. However, a healthy dose of cynicism is necessary in some circumstances, too...
    Hope all is well with you!
    Best wishes,

    1. Hi Kathy,

      Thank you for your kind words - and thank you for reading, I know it is a rather long review...

      Ah, what a sweet story, you falling for your husband because of your shared love for the LOTR! :) But yes, I know; when I first met my DH, one certain indicator was that he had read and liked some of the books that I also loved. Since then, we've shared many more... and it is one of life's pleasures, to be able to talk about a book (sometimes for hours...) with a loved one or a good friend. :)

      Yes,I guess you're right; it may sometimes be necessary to have a healthy dose of cynicism. A healthy dose. I do like your choice of words! :)