When I think about how I discover the things I read, I find it interesting how some paths are pretty straightforward (recommended by a friend, or the latest work of an author I like), but sometimes it can be, well, not so straightforward, like the way I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay’s work. This was way back in university, when my poetry professor started discussing Arabic poetry for one of the classes I was attending. She’d started us on the ghazals of Rumi and Hafiz, which was the best possible place to start – especially for someone like me, because I’m a sucker for gorgeous imagery no matter what I read, and Hafiz and Rumi are both masters of imagery. I was daydreaming of marble courtyards and stone-latticed windows, and pomegranate trees and tinkling fountains for a full, solid week, I think.
It was because of those daydreams that I was drawn to Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. One quick read of the blurb on the back and I knew I had to read it, despite knowing nothing (at the time) of who Kay was and what his writing was like. Fortunately, I couldn’t have picked a better book to get started on his works; lots of people tend to agree that Lions is one of the best starting points for anyone wanting to get into his oeuvre (the other book is Tigana).
However, despite having read (and re-read) Lions, I haven’t really picked up on the rest of his other books. I wanted to try out his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy earlier this year, but I just couldn’t get into it for some reason, despite it being portal fantasy, which is normally one of my kryptonites when it comes to tropes. That changed when I learned that he was releasing a new book this year, Children of Earth and Sky. This time, this book did stick – though it isn’t without its problems, problems which make me want to reread Lions and see if I would feel the same way about it after years and years of not reading it.
Children of Earth and Sky takes place in the same universe as some of Kay’s other novels, specifically the Sarantium Mosaic duology, The Lions of Al-Rassan, and The Last Light of the Sun, but set several (or maybe hundreds of) years after any of those books. Following four primary characters as they move from the glittering trade cities of Seressa and Dubrava, to the salt-wind harshness of Senjan, and across disputed borderlands to the awe-inspiring majesty of Sarantium, Kay weaves a story that asks some interesting questions about power, faith, kinship, and vengeance in relation to war and the suffering that emerges from war.
Now, there’s plenty of people who have problems with Kay’s idea of worldbuilding. As with a lot of his books, Children of Earth and Sky might be described as “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic” – a phrase Kay quotes from another critic, and which he likes using to describe his work. What this phrase means is that his settings are based solidly on real-world history, real-world locations, and sometimes even real-world people. For example, in Children there are three religious groups: the Jaddites, the Asharites, and the Kindath. It doesn’t take many readers long to figure out that the Jaddites are equivalent to Christians and the Asharites to Muslims. though it might take them a tiny bit longer to figure out that the Kindath are equivalent to Jews (though anyone who’s read Lions before picking up Children already knows that, since the Kindath play an important role in that novel).
It’s just as easy to figure out the real-world versions of the locations that Kay uses in this novel, especially if the reader has a pretty good grasp of European history. Seressa, for example, is a dead-ringer for Venice, not only because it’s a floating city threaded with canals and inhabited by a merchant people with a predilection for poison and masks, but also because the name “Seressa” echoes one of Venice’s older titles: La Serenissima, the Serene Republic. Dubrava, on the other hand, might take some readers a bit longer to pinpoint in the real world, but eventually it becomes clear that it’s based on the Croatian city of Dubrovnik (again, the name “Dubrava” is a clear echo of “Dubrovnik”).
And then there’s Sarantium, now called Asharias, which fell to conquering Asharites twenty-five years before the start of the novel. This tidbit of information is important, because it tells the reader not only what Sarantium’s real-world equivalent is, but the equivalent real-world time frame for the story. Sarantium/Asharias is the equivalent of Constantinople/Istanbul, which fell to the Ottoman Turks in the middle of the thirteenth century. This means that the world of Children is set in an equivalent of the Italian Renaissance.
While all of this might be fun and interesting for some readers (myself included), there are plenty of others who aren’t exactly fond of this sort of thing – and I can’t really blame them. After all, how can anyone call lifting directly from history and just altering names of places and people and shuffling a few events around “worldbuilding”? Shouldn’t an author make more of an effort than that to actually build a world? That’s precisely what George R. R. Martin did when he created Westeros, after all: he lifted some events and even a few of his characters from the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years’ War, but no one can actually say that anything about A Song of Ice and Fire is a carbon copy of those particular slices of history – readers have to have the right kind of background reading (and maybe squint a little) to see the parallels right away.
There’s another problem with the kind of worldbuilding Kay does for this novel: clichés. When writing straightforward historical fiction, most authors are generally very careful to avoid as many clichés as possible because they’re aware that their audience is going to call them out for it. Clichés tend to mean that the author has been less than rigorous with their research, and the primary audience of historical fiction generally doesn’t like authors who aren’t careful with their research. Unfortunately, since Kay isn’t exactly writing historical fiction, there are quite a few clichés that have slipped into Children of Earth and Sky since there is no need to hold to the stricter research standards of historical fiction. They’re mostly not too bothersome, but some readers might find themselves getting twitchy when they hit the ones in this novel.
So: given those problems, does Children of Earth and Sky have any redeeming factors? As a matter of fact, it does – and it is the redeeming factor of many of Kay’s other books: the quality of the writing. Kay has a wonderful way with words and imagery, with a language that borders on the poetic in the best possible way, and as a result it’s really easy to coast on the beauty of that language when everything else about the novel might not be quite as good as it should be. For instance, the characters of Children aren’t all that complex or subtle, but it’s easy to forgive them their lack of complexity because the narration makes them interesting. The plot also has some issues with pacing, especially in the first third, but again it’s easy to get carried away by the beauty of the language until things really start to pick up pace towards the middle.
Overall, Children of Earth and Sky is an enjoyable read – at least for people who are already fans of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work: the same people who are inclined to forgive his style of worldbuilding, characterization and plot pacing in favor of his wonderful language. Newbies might have a harder time understanding just what the hype is all about, and would probably be better off reading Lions of Al-Rassan (which is, admittedly, the stronger work) before picking up this four-star read.
Children of Earth and Sky is available on Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the title to find them all.