Book review: Children of Earth and Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay

I would recommend this novel not just to historical fantasy lovers, but also to those who like regular historical fiction about the Renaissance.

Here’s what the official blurb says:

‘From the small coastal town of Senjan, notorious for its pirates , a young woman sets out to find vengeance for her lost family. That same spring, from the wealthy city-state of Seressa, famous for its canals and lagoon, come two very different people: a young artist traveling to the dangerous east to paint the Grand Khalif at his request-and possibly to do more-and a beautiful woman, posing as a doctor’s wife in her role of a spy.

The trading ship that carries them is commanded by the clever younger son of a mI would recommend this novel not just to historical fantasy lovers, but also to those who like regular historical fiction about the Renaissance. erchant family -with ambivalence about the life he’s been born to live. And farther east a boy trains to become a soldier in the elite infantry of the khalif-to win glory in the war everyone knows is coming.

As these lives entwine, their fates-and those of many others-will hang in the balance, when the khalif sends out his massive army to take the great fortress that is the gateway to the western world…’

This book takes place in the same universe as Sarantine Mosaic and Lions of Al-Rassan. Just like the former was set in the fantasy version of the Byzantine Empire, and the latter dealt with the conquest of that world’s Muslim Spain, the plot of Children of Earth and Sky is played out in the Renaissance Mediterranean. The great powers in the game are the Republic of Seressa (Venice), the Holy Jaddite Empire (Holy Roman Empire), and their arch-adversaries, the Asharite/Muslim Osmanlis (no prizes for guessing who these guys are!).

While political fantasy tends to be fixated on the fates of great empires, this novel pays a lot of attention to the borderlands – to those located, metaphorically and literally, on the margins. There are smaller city-states who cannot boast the splendor of Venice, who have to trade with everyone and appease everyone in order to prevent themselves from being overrun by the powerful neighbours. There is the small, hardy, bitterly proud town of Senjan, whose inhabitants some call raiders and some call heroes. There are pale-eyed, flaxen-haired boys from Jaddite (Christian) villages, kidnapped in childhood and growing up to be high-ranking officers in the khalif’s army.

What I admire in Kay’s novels, among other things, is this great empathy. Here, there is no such thing as insignificant pain (or insignificant joy, for that matter), a natural byproduct of the games of thrones, something to be brushed aside. A lost brother finding his sister is as great a victory as the fate of an imperial fortress; perhaps, even more so.

As I’ve said, the novel takes place in the same universe as Sarantine Mosaic; moreover, it even covers the same geographical area. So, if you’ve read both novels (or, rather, the novel and the duology), be prepared to cry over the ruins of the Hippodrome where Taras of Megarium raced, and feel the shiver of recognition when a certain forest in Sauradia comes into view, and sob sometimes because ‘the maiden shall never walk the bright fields again, / Hair yellow as midsummer grain’.

‘At one point, for no reason he could understand, Pero felt a wave of sorrow pass through him. An old sorrow, not about himself or anyone here now, alive now, in the world. He stopped and looked around but saw nothing at all. He walked on and the sensation receded as he went’.

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