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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

I finished reading The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam yesterday and it was perfect, as I have come to expect from her.  It was fluently, imaginatively written, full of haunting images and details I will not soon forget.  But there is one thing it is not: a children’s book.  And yet that is how it is marketed.

At its heart, there are two children (but child characters alone do not make a children’s book).  Bell Teesdale is eight when the book begins, a sensible country boy who, like the rest of his family, is pitching in with the haymaking on their Cumbrian farm.  Rain is expected so the family works through the day and into the moonlit night, to the despair of the London family renting the farmhouse next to the field.  A tractor circling outside their windows at midnight is not their idea of a relaxing summer holiday.  Tempers flare, words are exchanged, and both fathers are fuming by the time they go to bed.  But Harry, the London family’s very young son, and Bell subtly intervene and peace is made the next morning.

So begins the story of twenty years of friendship between the Teesdales and the Batemans, and most especially between Bell and Harry.  The entire Bateman family comes to love their country getaway, where Harry’s writer father comes to work during the school holidays, but Harry feels a particular bond with the place and is never happier than when exploring the fields, dales, and fells or communing with locals, like the egg-witch (whose story is one of my favourites) or the local chimney sweep.

Gardam is a master of the short story and while I always enjoy reading her stories, I sometimes feel frustrated by their brevity.  I want more!  Here, we have the perfect compromise: a collection of exquisitely composed stories all focused on the same people.  It’s not quite a novel – the stories jump about through the years and Gardam has no interest in explaining things the way she would do in a novel – but the satisfaction of getting to see lives progress and learn how things turn out for everyone as they age is absolutely here.

So why is it considered a children’s book?  A number of her early books are (this was published in 1981, relatively early in her career), but then again that classification seems to vary by publisher.  Some consider Bilgewater, A Long Way From Verona, and The Summer After the Funeral to be for younger readers, which I can somewhat understand.  Europa, who have been reissuing Gardam’s books over the past few years, consider those novels to be for adults and yet this collection they consider among her works for children.  I think that is stretching it.  It’s not inappropriate in anyway for a younger reader, it’s just written in a way I would think appeals to more mature readers.  A twelve-year old would be absolutely fine with it, but then twelve-year olds should be reading adult books and not children’s ones anyway.  The language, the sedate pacing, the frequent focus on adult concerns and thoughts, all seem to me to gear more towards an adult reader.  And Bell and Harry’s boyish activities seem perfectly tailored to the nostalgic adult reader who would like nothing more than to spend a summer day exploring abandoned mines or a winter’s one admiring extraordinarily icicles formed by a fierce, fast frost.

Regardless of your age, it’s a wonderful collection and, like Harry, I didn’t want my time there to end.

NOTE: Europa, despite their interesting classification of adult/children’s novels, having been doing great work reissuing Gardam’s older titles over the past few years.  The Hollow Land, Bilgewater, A Long Way From Verona, and a number of her other books are all currently available in excellent editions and all are well-worth reading.  She is a truly extraordinary writer.  And if you need more encouragement to get excited about Gardam, the Backlisted podcast did a wonderful episode on A Long Way From Verona that is well-worth a listen.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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Searching for a suitable book for Easter weekend?  Let me recommend Bewildering Cares by Winifred Peck, which suits the occasion admirably being both cosy and heavy with aspects of church life.   It wasn’t quite to my tastes but I suspect I am an aberration and many of you would enjoy it greatly.

Published in 1940, this short book covers a week in the life of Camilla Lacely, a vicar’s wife in a mid-sized northern town near Manchester.  A lover of E.M. Delafield, Camilla attempts to write about church committees, war work, local squabbles, and concerns about her overworked husband and enlisted son with the same verve as the Provincial Lady.  Inevitably, she fails to capture the humour and quick-wittedness of those books but the result is still pleasant.  The book does drag somewhat through Camilla’s church-related duties and these take up a tedious amount of time.  In Delafield’s light-hearted hands I have no doubt this could have been made entertaining but it becomes ponderous in Peck’s far more earnest ones.

The best thing about Camilla is her taste in books and my favourite passages were reading-related ones.  For instance, I loved her musings on her fictional predecessors:

…I am rereading with infinite pleasure of the clergy ladies of fiction, Mrs Elton and Mrs Proudie, Nancy Woodforde and Mrs John Wesley […] I let my mind sink into sleep, fancying what sort of address Mrs Elton gave to the Mothers’ Meeting (if any), and how Bishop Proudie ever found the courage to propose to Mrs Proudie.

And who could resist her prescription after a long and exhausting day?

Arthur came in looking so exhausted that I went to the book shelf and took out Mr Mulliner Speaks.  I propped this against the water-jug for him, and Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell, which I have read thirty times already and will probably read thirty more, against the loaf for myself.  There is nothing so good for worried people as to read at their meals, and funny books if possible…

Others have written far more fondly and at length about this book so do read the reviews by Audrey, Julie, and Lyn if you are interested in learning more.  I am happy to have read this but will equally happily consign my copy to the give-away pile.  For me, this book is a poor example of Peck’s talents.  Her gifts are more introspective than observational, more earnest than comic, and it feels like here she tries – with middling results – to be something she isn’t.  Much better to read the excellent House-Bound (published two years later) and be swept up into a thoughtful, moving story about the war’s impact on domestic life and social conventions.

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Many authors regret their first book.  They wish for it to disappear completely, never to be seen or heard of again, completely disassociated from any future career they might make for themselves.

Sometimes that wish is well founded.

In 1905, Lovers in London by A.A. Milne was published and it is exactly the kind of book he would rather everyone forgot about.  He certainly tried to himself; he considered The Day’s Play, published in 1910, his first book.  And as it is miles better than this I don’t wonder at that.  But these days it is all too easy to revive even the deeply forgettable and Lovers in London is now readily available from Bello as both an e-book and a print-on-demand paperback.

So what is this relic from Milne’s youth?  It’s a collection of linked short stories (sometimes it is referred to as a novel but clearly those people haven’t read it) about, you’ll be shocked to hear this, two young lovers in London.  The eager young Teddy is delighted when his American godfather comes to London with his family, including his lovely daughter Amelia.  Teddy, already half in love with Amelia based on her photograph, falls totally when he meets her and dedicates himself to her amusement (and wooing) with trips throughout London.

Teddy is a classic Milne young man: eager, romantic, inclined to whimsy, attempting to make a living as a writer, and terribly fond of cricket.  He is someone his twenty-three-year old author was clearly comfortable writing, since he basically was Milne at this stage in his life.  And Amelia is the prototypical Milne young woman, happy to go along with her suitor’s flights of whimsy and give as good as she gets, though Milne’s skills at writing women would improve greatly.

Crucially, his skills at writing would improve greatly in the years to come.

Milne had spent years writing and editing at Cambridge but when this was published hadn’t yet started his prolific career at Punch.  Punch, clearly, was where he refined his skill and these stories are sloppy compared to the clever economy of the excellent pieces he would write for the magazine over the coming years.  Some of the stories in this collection ramble terribly – Milne was a master of witty rambling but hadn’t yet managed the witty part at this stage – and Teddy indulges in far too frequent (and occasionally incoherent) fantasies about how he could impress Amelia.  In such a short book, so much repetition grates.  Teddy, as our narrator, express his own (and his author’s) opinion on how the book is going at one point:

Most of my stories have a way of avoiding anything that approximates to a plot.  They do this of their own intention, not regarding the wishes of the author.  Often have I longed, regretfully, in the retrospect for a plot.

The good news is that Milne would, eventually, find out how to write both with and without a plot and do it delightfully.  He just wouldn’t figure it out for a few more years.

As a Milne completist, I’m glad I read this.  It’s a fascinating step in his evolution as a writer.  However, on its own, it simply doesn’t have much merit.  (I will note that Simon read it back in 2012 and had kinder things to say.)

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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I have a new book on my list of favourites and, much to my surprise, it’s by an author whose writing I had previously described as “a long-winded mess” and “a chore to work through to the finish”.  What is this delightful, joyful, life-changing (at least in my attitude towards its author) book you may ask?  The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp.

Published in 1933 (but recently reissued), the book begins several years earlier as twenty-nine-year old Lesley comes to a startling realisation after a dude of a date: she is not a woman that men fall in love with.  Yes, they flirt with her and try to get her into bed but when she meets a man she’d actually like to fall in love with – nothing.  No sparks whatsoever.  And if that is the case, she begins to wonder, what is the point of the whirlwind social life among artists and other bright young things, and the obsession with powdering, plucking, and painting herself into a modern beauty?

And so, in search of a purpose, she decides to adopt an orphaned four-year old boy (Pat) whom her aunt has unexpectedly been left in charge with.  In doing so, she realises she will have to leave her beloved London flat (no children allowed) and, at least for the next four years until he can be sent to boarding school, completely upend her well-ordered life.  It begins with a move to the country after having discovered she can’t afford anything suitable in town.  The suburbs, when suggested to her by estate agents, are completely out of the question:

Lesley listened incredulously: it was as though they advised her to try Australia.  There were the suburbs, of course, through which one occasionally passed in a car, and where people out of Punch borrowed each other’s mowers; but as for living there –

In the country, not surprisingly, everyone immediately assumes Pat is Lesley’s child.  She after all has all the markings of a frivolous, moral-less young thing likely to get herself into such a situation and then brazen it out.  It’s important to clarify the truth to a few people – the vicar and his wife, for instance, not because Lesley has taken up religion in any way but because they have four young children for Pat to play with which nicely occupies the bulk of his day – but after that Lesley couldn’t care less.  She is a practical young woman: what does it matter what the villagers think as she is only going to be there for four years?

But, inevitably as the years pass, Lesley finds herself being absorbed by country life.  She is on friendly terms with the neighbours but, most importantly, she makes a dear friend of Sir Philip, her landlord and an old school friend of her uncle’s.  Despite an awkward beginning (at their first meeting Sir Philip, a racy late Victorian at heart, was encouraged by her backless dress and painted beauty into a rather unwelcome advance) they become good friends able to speak very frankly to one another:

‘You are enjoying yourself,’ said Lesley.

Sir Philip grunted.

‘The modern woman,’ he said.  ‘Your grandmother, my dear, or even your mother, would at once have flown to my pillows.  Take some sherry.’

‘But your pillows are beautiful,’ protested Lesley, doing as she was told.  ‘Why should I come and disarrange them?’

‘Because I should like you to.  Because every man, when feeling a trifle uneasy, likes to believe that his women are feeling even more so.  It panders to our sense of superiority.’

Socially, that’s all Lesley requires.  Part of the joy of the book is that young Pat is relegated firmly to the background.  Lesley grows to care about him but, as other characters wonderingly remark, she doesn’t really love him or try to mother him.  She is simply there providing a modicum of adult supervision and, increasingly, fondness.  Lesley is much more interested in spending time with Sir Philip or making improvements to her awkward little cottage.  It is a life completely removed from the social whirlwind in which she used to exist and she blossoms.

But her London life does intrude every so often. Old friends descend on her cottage for a weekend, bringing with them noise, rudeness, and plenty of alcohol and cigarettes.  Her greatest London friend, Elissa, who “when given time to arrange her thighs, looked as thin as a toothpick”, soon forgets all about Lesley mouldering in the country and it is up to Lesley to keep up the friendship.  But encounters with her old crowd only serve to remind her how far she has drifted from them – and how happy she is to have done so.  She retains her love for London – for theatres and galleries and intellectual discussion – but is done with all the artifice of her former life.  She has figured out what matters to her and, as the book ends with Pat going off to school and Lesley regaining much of her freedom, she knows exactly how she plans to live.  And it seems her new life has room for that thing she had given up on only a few years before – love.

I adored this book.  Yes, the central message tends a little towards “reject modern womanhood and you will be healthier, happier, and more loveable” but it is so funny and so extraordinarily well written.  The completely lack of sentimentality is what really did it for me.  The premise – beautiful spinster adopts small boy – could be terrifyingly twee in another author’s hands but Sharp, who lives up to her name, wisely doesn’t try to turn Lesley into anything maternal.  In fact, Lesley almost immediately after taking charge of Pat wants to give him back.  They do not bond or say winsome things to one another, they merely get on in a spirit of peaceable companionship, each concerned with their own interests.  How wise!  I finished it completely delighted by its wit and heart and determined to read much, much more by Sharp.  Many thanks to Jane for organizing Margery Sharp Day (as part of her Birthday Book of Underappreciated Lady Authors), which gave me the impetus to read this.

This post contains affiliate links from Book Depository, an online book retailer with free international shipping.  If you buy via these links it means I receive a small commission (at no extra cost to you).  

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“Daffodils” by Arthur Baker-Clark

The sun is out here this afternoon and everyone is wandering around, staring with confusion at blue skies, shadows, and other consequences of sunlight that have become foreign to us over the last few months of near-constant rain.  Most importantly, it feels, if only for a few hours, like spring is really coming and that the snow drops aren’t just here to lure us into a false sense of optimism.  Here’s hoping.

I’ve spent an entertaining weekend acting as moral support for my mother, who, at age 63, has decided she wants to sew again after abstaining for more than thirty years.  My grandmother was extraordinarily talented and my mother once upon a time was very good herself – they may have been poor when they immigrated to Canada but they were extraordinarily well-dressed.  My mother’s powder blue jumpsuit circa 1970 is still remembered fondly by every boy/man who ever saw her in it.  However, a busy corporate career, two time-consuming children, and a healthy disposable income had my mom cheerfully turning away from her sewing machine for the last several decades.  Now semi-retired and looking for hobbies, she’s decided this is the way to go.  I remember absolutely nothing about sewing so am in no way useful but I am a cheerful and positive presence (I am told) and am enjoying the entire process immensely.

What I am expert at is reading.  I’ve been reading steadily and am entertaining myself right now by flipping back and forth between The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh and The Blue Zones of Happiness by Dan Buettner.  The Blue Zones book looks at happiness research from around the world and identifies habits, attitudes, and structures from these places that people around the world can imitate to improve their own happiness.  Evelyn Waugh could have used some of these.  In his thirties he appears to have been merely rude and intent on making several enemies per year.  As he aged, he became exceeding ornery and determined to make enemies of everyone he met.  His much more charming correspondent, however, remains sunny and optimistic even when going through her own personal struggles.  And Mitford got to live in dynamic Paris rather than dreary England so that surely helped (echoing an important lesson of Buettner’s book: it’s hard to be happy in depressing surroundings, especially when all the people you see are also miserable).

These are probably the two most interesting books I’ve read all month.  Here’s a taste of a few other things I’ve been reading that weren’t quite worthy of getting their own dedicated posts:

Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton (1944) – this story of a day in the life of a country hospital was a bit too slow moving and detailed for me.  I like the idea and the doctor characters were nicely done but the story dragged terribly every time the focus shifted to the nursing staff.  While there is no obvious war-related storyline, it’s interesting to see how social changes wrought by the war are integrated into the story.  For example, when the senior doctors are considering filling positions they remark on how the most capable young doctors available are generally women since the best men are enlisted.  This is certainly reflected in their hospital staff: one of the central characters is a very accomplished female doctor whose skills are never in doubt.  She does have a needlessly overwrought romantic life, though, which makes for one of the tiring plotlines in an already tired novel.  Definitely not Ashton’s best and easily skippable.

The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill (1982) – I found a book where Hill isn’t immensely annoying in every second paragraph!  This chronicle of a year of country life is beautifully observed and elegantly written.  It isn’t quite up to the standard of books like A Country Life by Roy Strong or Adrian Bell’s trilogy (starting with Corduroy) but it was a very pleasant read.  She is particularly good in writing about winter and autumn (her favourite season) and conjuring up cosy indoor scenes and spartan outdoor ones.

Miss Billy by Eleanor H. Porter (1911) – this sounded charming: the story of an eighteen-year old girl who, when her last surviving relative dies, seeks out her father’s closest friend (William) after whom she (Billy) was named.  William generously invites her to come make her home with him and his two younger brothers only realising her gender when he goes to meet her at the train station.  Cute, yes?  In execution, it’s awfully bad.  Billy is annoying from her first appearance, not a single character is fleshed out enough to ever become interesting, and the plot is both flimsy and absurd.  Billy is paired up with each of the brothers at one point or another and it’s all very unconvincing.  The main point in the book’s favour is how short it is and I finished it with relief.  What is truly horrifying is that there are two sequels!

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Åkeson McGurk (2017) – McGurk, Swedish by birth, was living and raising her children in Indiana with her American husband when her father became ill.  Wanting to be closer to him while he went through treatment, she moved to Sweden for six months with her two daughters while her husband remained in America.  Having been frustrated by how difficult it was to get her girls in America to enjoy the outdoorsy lifestyle she grew up with (concerned neighbours often stopped their cars to offer her a life when they saw her – well dressed for the elements – out walking in rain, snow or cold weather) she is excited to see how they will react to life in Sweden, where active lifestyles are the norm and schools prioritize outdoor playtime.

The verdict?  The secret to Swedish parenting is to make your children go outside in all weather and to teach them from childhood to enjoy nature as part of their daily life.  I grew up and live in a very outdoorsy place so there was lots familiar from the Swedish approach but the institutional issues McGurk saw in the US education system (particularly reduced time for outdoor play during recess and lunchtimes) are definitely things we’re seeing – with concern – here in Canada as well.  Overall, very entertaining and sensible.

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When I went to Croatia in June, I went prepared for a lazy beach and hiking holiday, looking forward to having hours to spend reading in the sunshine.

Well, I had hours and I had sunshine.  What I didn’t have by the time I reached Split were any books to read.  For the first time in my life, I had dared to travel with only my e-reader.  So, of course, this was the first time I lost my e-reader (I forgot it on my third and final flight and it was stolen from there).

What I did have was a smartphone with my Kobo app, giving me access to all the books in my Kobo library.  It wasn’t ideal but it was something.  I couldn’t read on the tiny screen as often as I would have liked so it turned into a selective reading holiday focused primarily on one author: Richmal Crompton.

I’d read a few of Crompton’s books before and enjoyed them, Leadon Hill being my favourite before this year.  But the more I read, the more I realise that she, like many prolific authors (looking at you, P.G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer) liked to repeat the same plot over and over again.  From Crompton, it’s about a group of children (generally siblings but sometimes not) and watching them grow from childhood to (inevitably) unnecessarily warped adulthood.  If you’ve read Family Roundabout from Persephone, you’re going to find Frost at Morning, Quartet, and a host of other titles very familiar.  For my part, I think Quartet is the most enjoyable of this template but then I haven’t read them all.  Do I even need to read them all?  Probably not.

That’s not to say she wasn’t capable of writing different stories.  She was and was in fact very good at it as Leadon Hill and Matty and the Dearingroydes show, but again the stock characters and scenarios tend to creep in.

And then there is Felicity – Stands By, which is so entirely not what I expected from Crompton and so thoroughly fun that I could hardly believe it.

Felicity – Stands By is a collection of stories written during the 1920s about the escapades of Miss Norma Felicity Montague Harborough, commonly known as Pins.  In the opening story she is sixteen-years old and has just left school.  She has managed to give her adult escorts the slip and is feeling very congratulatory as she boards the train to go home – treating herself to third-class seat rather than the socially-approved first she is usually forced to take.  And her adventure is rewarded with the making of a new friend: Mr. Franklin.  Darling Frankie, as she soon christens him, is a delightful young man who, since the end of the war, has been struggling to find work to support both him and his widowed mother.  He would love secretarial work but, having been unable to find any, is on his way to take up the post of valet to Sir Digby Harborough – coincidentally the grandfather and guardian of his new friend Felicity.  His term as valet is short-lived and within a few breathless pages Frankie has proven his worth by foiling a thief, had his ancestors and education (Harrow) approved by Sir Digby, and been elevated to the post of secretary.  With Frankie now installed in the house as Felicity’s friend and confidant, we are ready for her adventures to begin.

In addition to Frankie and numerous servants, Felicity shares her home with her beautiful but chilly sister Rosemary (with whom Frankie, like all men, instantly falls in love), her stiff Aunt Marcella, and her grandfather Sir Digby.  The youngest of five orphaned siblings, Felicity’s eldest brother and sister are both married and living in London while her favourite brother, Ronald, is in the guards and devoted to a rather jolly life of pleasure.  They all make appearances in the stories but in mostly superficial ways.  It is only the relatives with whom she lives that we get a good idea about, Sir Digby in particular who is just the kind of curmudgeonly, illustrious grandfather I like to come across in fiction:

Sir Digby Harborough suffered from the Harborough gout and the Harborough temper.  Aunt Marcella was proud of both the gout and the temper.  She would have felt ashamed of any elderly relative of the male sex who did not possess both the gout and the temper.  Common people might be immune from such things.  Not so the Harboroughs.

Being of a far better temper than her grandfather and possessing indefatigable energy, it doesn’t take Felicity long after leaving school to get caught up in enjoyable antics.  She excels at coming to the help of others: when Ronald is in need of cash, she takes up with an acting troupe for an afternoon in order to earn money for him (and ends the day with the much needed four hundred pounds).  When a friend’s father is in danger of being ensnared into marriage by a horrifying woman, it is Felicity once again to the rescue.  She rescues a friend’s love-sick writings from a past amour who won’t give them up and is instead joyfully sharing them with his new loves and, in possibly my favourite act of social good, artfully converts a friend’s hypochondriac spiritualist aunt into a hearty outdoorswoman.

And, occasionally, she entertains herself by running off an unwanted governess with the loan of a few exotic animals from a passing zoo-keeper, indulging in socialist-inspired acts of generosity, impersonating Russians, and sampling a life of pleasure.  It is this last which she finds most difficult to do, perhaps because it is the only one she must disclose to her family before attempting.  She does eventually find a suitable escort for an evening of dissipation (dancing, cocktails, cigarettes) in her dry brother-in-law but Aunt Marcella is not easily won over, despite Felicity’s succinct explanation of how young ladies are now launched on the world:

“I mean nowadays you don’t come out with a bang like you used to.  You unfold gradually like a flower.  It’s much more poetical.  I read somewhere the other day that nowadays girls begin to go out to dinner when they’re fifteen, and when they’re sixteen they begin to go to dances and night clubs and drink cocktails, and when they’re seventeen they do all those things till they’re simply sick of them, and when they’re eighteen someone gives a dance to mark the fact that life has no further experiences to offer them.”

Despite finding no pleasure in her evening of excess, the book ends with Felicity entering formally into the adult world.  Schoolgirl no more, she appears before her family as a beautiful, composed young woman ready to take society by storm.  They are all saddened for a moment at the loss of the impish girl in braids and holey stockings – until they look at her face.  The apparel may change but the irrepressible girl within does not.

I have a weakness for cunning optimists who will brazen their way through any situation and come out composed and ready for more.  It’s why I love Wodehouse’s Psmith, Angela Thirkell’s Tony Morland, and, now, Felicity.  These stories aren’t the best things Crompton ever wrote but they are fun and charming and I wish there were a dozen volumes more in the adventures of Felicity.

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9780670068395Last 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.

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