Last May I was a basket case. I was working too much and, when I wasn’t working, I was studying. Occasionally I tried to sleep but I was so wired that I was getting by on four hours a night.
Into this mess came a ray of sunlight: Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay was published on May 10th. For a few days, I put aside my other concerns (and text books) and just read. It was wonderful. So wonderful, in fact, that I picked it up again on Christmas Day and reread it.
Kay writes historical fantasy with a focus on the historical and only a light sprinkling of fantasy (very light here). My favourite of his books are inspired by Moorish Spain (The Lions of Al-Rassan), medieval Provence (A Song for Arbonne) and Tang-dynasty China (Under Heaven). In Children of Earth and Sky, he takes his inspiration from Renaissance-era Europe, specifically focusing on the trading powers of Venice (Seressa) and Dubrovnik (Dubrava) and their complicated relationship with one another and the Ottoman (Osmanli) empire to the east.
Kay is fascinated by stories about borderlands – places where different groups of people overlap, where cultures and religions are in conflict, where anything might happen. In other books, those people have been emperors and kings, individuals with the power to change and destroy lives. Perhaps the most noticeable change about Children of Earth and Sky when compared to Kay’s other books is the relative anonymity of his characters. These are not kings or generals but even their actions have consequences for the lives of many.
At the heart of the book are five characters: Leonora, the disgraced daughter of a noble family who has been plucked from the religious order where her family had left her to act as a spy for Seressa in Dubrava; Pero, a young and talented artist who, like Leonora, is being sent east by Seressa to spy (in his case on the Osmanli grand khalif); Danica, a fierce young woman seeking revenge for the father and elder brother killed and the younger brother abducted by the Osmanlis; Marin, the youngest and cleverest son of a wealthy Dubrava family; and Damaz, a member of the elite Osmanli fighting force known as the djanni. Each of their lives changes in ways they could never have imagined – and they in turn change the world around them in ways both big and small.
Kay seems even more philosophical than usual in this book, which is fine by me. He is at his most lyrical when musing on fate or the fragility of life:
You lived your life in intimate proximity to its sudden end. Prayers were more intense because of this. Help was needed, under sun, moons, stars – and some reason to hope for what might come after.
Laughter was also necessary, and found, in spite of – or because of – these close and terrible dangers. Simple pleasures. Music and dance, wine, ale, dice and cards. Harvest’s end, the taste of berries on the bush, tricking the bees from a hive full of honey. Warmth and play in a bed at night or in the straw of a bar. Companionship. Sometimes love.
There were reasons to fear in every season, however, in every place where men and women tried to shape and guard their lives.
Maybe because of this interest, his secondary characters seem more developed (and plentiful) than usual. The faded Empress of Sarantium, who has lost her empire, her husband and her son but not her wits or strength. The proud, doomed pirates of Senjan who, loyal to their ruler, march inland to fight against the Osmanlis and meet their fate bravely and on their own terms. The farm girl whose life is enlivened for a year by the arrival of a tall, handsome boy, giving flight to dreams of a life with him rather than the short, dull neighbour whose farm adjoins hers. The aging fighter who has spent half his life roaming the countryside, fighting the Osmanlis who took his home from him. Great or small, their stories are richly told and, whether they appear for a few pages or a few chapters, these characters lived for me.
It is a beautifully-told story and, with its focus very much on human emotions rather than grand events, a poignant one. I revisited it with pleasure this week and I know I’ll reread it with joy in years to come.