The Past is Another Country, or Even A Fantasy – A Review of Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

bigchildrenofearthandsky When I think about what leads me to the books I choose to read (where it does not involve random discovery or a familiarity with the author’s previous work), the path tends to be relatively straightforward: a recommendation from a friend whose taste I trust, for example, or as part of the required reading list for a particular course. Other times, it can come from a somewhat more indirect source: when a book is mentioned in a book I am already reading, for instance. And sometimes, it can be because I am tracking down something with a similar style, a similar feel. Such instances are rare, since it is not a very accurate method of discovery, but it can lead to pleasant discoveries, as long as my luck holds.

That was the case when I discovered Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan. One of my poetry professors had introduced our class to Middle Eastern poetry – in particular, the ghazals of Hafiz and Rumi. The ghazal was new to me at the time, and I was enchanted by them – or rather, by the imagery used by the poets. Even when I was not actively reading the poetry, the images lingered: I daydreamed of courtyards filled with roses and pomegranate trees, and of stone-latticed windows casting tessellated shadows on multicoloured marble floors, the song of a lone nightingale echoing against a high, domed ceiling. The Lions of Al-Rassan evoked similar images, and though it was that imagery that first attracted me to the book, it was Kay’s storytelling and language that made me read it to the very end, and made me a fan of his writing.

I have, however, been rather remiss in my fannishness. It has been years since I read The Lions of Al-Rassan, or even re-read it, and though I have been interested in reading Kay’s other works, none of them have really drawn me the same way Lions does. Earlier this year I attempted to at least start the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, but that attempt quickly failed, as it was unable to keep a hold on me and I drifted to other books. But when I found out that Kay was releasing a new novel this year, I knew I had to at least give it a shot. That novel, Children of Earth and Sky, has turned out to be a beautiful read with much the same magic I remember from Lions, albeit lacking a bit of the same shine.

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, albeit it is set several (or perhaps 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.

One of the most interesting – and perhaps, for some people, most frustrating – things about Kay’s work is his choice of setting. As with most (if not all) of Kay’s books unless stated otherwise, this book might be described as “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic” – a phrase quoted by Kay from another writer in the Acknowledgements section of this book. This means, therefore, that anyone with a relatively good grasp of history can easily find parallels to almost everything and everyone Kay mentions in his books – right down to the period in history the book is attempting to parallel. Most obvious would be the religious factions: Jaddites are Christians, Asharites are Muslims, and Kindath are Jews. (The latter is not immediately obvious in Children of Earth and Sky, but since I’d already read The Lions of Al-Rassan before reading this book I already knew that the Kindath are meant to parallel the Jews.) The same goes for the locations: Seressa is Venice, Sarantium is Constantinople, Dubrava is Dubrovnik, and so on. The reader can easily pick these parallels up in the details Kay tucks into the narrative. Take the excerpt below, for example:

He had already saluted, Faleri thought grimly. Six times head to marble floor. Was he now to crawl forward and kiss a slippered imperial foot? They did that in Asharias, didn’t they? That great, triple-walled city wasn’t called Sarantium any more, it had been conquered. It was where the khalif ruled. They had renamed the City of Cities since the fall, the terrible disaster of the age.

Twenty-five years ago. It was still difficult to grasp that it had happened. …

Not only does this excerpt offer a clue as to Sarantium’s real-world parallel, but it also allows a reader well-informed in European history to place just when, more or less, this story takes place. Since Sarantium is equivalent to Constantinople, then twenty-five years after its fall would mean, in real-world history, roughly around the end of the 15th century (Constantinople was besieged on April 6, 1453, and fell on May 29 of the same year) – the height of the Italian Renaissance. This, too is borne out in other details, such as in this description of Seressa:

Seressa was a nominally free, extremely wealthy, cultured, powerful republic. The Seressinis’ wealth and culture could be seen in their buildings and squares and monuments, in the endless activity by the port and in the Arsenale where the ships were built. They had no king or prince tyrannizing them. They elected their leaders (well, the wealthier among them elected themselves as leaders). Merchants had a status here they held nowhere else in the world. You could rise to influence from low birth more readily in Seressa than anywhere.

It was also, however, a mysterious, dangerous, frightening city. And that wasn’t just about the masks at carnival time or fog swirling about. …

Only someone with absolutely no knowledge of history would be blind to the fact that the above excerpt clearly describes Venice. Even the name of the place itself – Seressa – is an echo of Venice’s own title for itself: La Serenissima, the Serene Republic. Even that little reference to “masks at carnival” aligns squarely with many a reader’s image of Venice, where mask-wearing and mask-making have a long and deep tradition that is generally associated with Carnevale.

And this, I think, is where this book can either be pleasantly entertaining to the reader, or entirely irritating. Any reader who is fond of fantasy knows to expect some level of world-building – indeed, he or she may choose to make world-building an important criterion for judging the quality of a work (as I tend to do). This means, therefore, that readers who pick up Kay’s work expecting a second-world fantasy setting might find themselves surprised, and then maybe disappointed. It is one thing to derive elements from real-world cultures, or to include certain aspects of historical events, or even to create characters who share similarities with actual historical personages, but another thing entirely to take the real world as-is, and do nothing more than to change the names of places and people and shuffle historical events a little bit, and call that a “setting”. Some readers hold this against Kay, saying his world-building is lazy, if it might even be called “world-building” at all. They don’t understand why his writing is called “fantasy” when what he’s technically doing is historical fiction. And I will admit, there is some merit to that complaint.

Despite this, I am inclined to forgive Kay this particular flaw. After all, he has never explicitly stated that his books – particularly the ones set in the same world as Children of Earth and Sky – are fantasy; indeed, he prefers not to categorise his works in any particular genre (even though the Fionavar Tapestry books are very definitely fantasy – portal fantasy, in fact). I do wonder from time to time why Kay does not simply write straightforward historical fiction, instead of this “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic”, but I suppose doing so would be too restrictive. While writers of historical fiction can and do incorporate fictional elements in their works, they are nevertheless held to a high standard of accuracy and research. By choosing to set his works in an imaginary (more or less) world, Kay is able to write whatever story he might choose to write, without any of the restorations that accompany proper historical fiction.

This flexibility, however, is not without its problems. Though it is clear that the world of Children of Earth and Sky is meticulously researched, a few cliches have slipped into the storytelling in certain places – cliches that might not be there if the writing was held to the higher standards of historical fiction. For example: it is something of a cliche that the Venetians are experts in poison – both in its manufacture and its use, supposedly because their preferred style of politics (both internally and externally) require it. Corollary to this cliche is the notion that Venetian women are masters when it comes to making and using poisons, one which they mask with their peerless beauty, exquisite manners, and prodigious sexual talents. While there is very likely a great deal of truth behind all of those ideas (as is often the case with many cliches – that is why they become cliches), I think any attempt to use them in fiction must be tempered by careful and nuanced portrayal.

This is a problem, therefore, when it comes to the way some cultures are portrayed in the novel. Take Seressa, for example. While Venice during the Renaissance was indeed famous (or perhaps infamous) for its preference for cloak-and-dagger manipulations to exercise its powers abroad (and occasionally at home), the portrayal of Seressa does not feel particularly subtle or complex. Equally problematic is the way Asharite culture is portrayed – which is surprising because as best as I can remember, The Lions of Al-Rassan portrays Muslim (Asharite) culture fairly well – although perhaps it might be that my memory of that is no longer quite good, since it has been a while since I last read the novel. Nevertheless, there were some details about the Asharite court in Sarantium that made me raise my eyebrow a little, but I cannot say for sure if the portrayal is accurate, or wholly cliche.

Despite this, though, I find that I enjoy reading about Kay’s world, mostly because it is very easy to just let go and sink into it. Part of it is that he writes it in such a lovely manner – Kay’s prose is excellent – but I suppose the element of familiarity without being too familiar is the main reason why I enjoy it so much. If this novel was historical fiction, I would probably be on the lookout for inaccuracies and inconsistencies, whereas Kay’s take on it allows me to simply enjoy the story for what it is. I also don’t have to work as hard to build the world in my head the same way I would when reading a novel set in a mostly-original secondary world fantasy; since the world is entirely familiar, my imagination has no difficulty filling in any gaps in imagery. This means it is easy to focus on other things, like characterisation and plot.

Speaking of characterisation, Kay does a fairly good job at it, though it must be said that the characters to feel a bit flat. None of them are particularly complex or subtle, especially when they are on their own, but fortunately Kay’s writing is of such high quality that it is easy to let that lack of subtlety and complexity slide – particularly when they are interacting with each other. As for the plot, it moves slowly and is not particularly interesting at first, but once the reader gets past the first third it starts to actually pick up. It is a quiet plot, though, and the few fights that are actually written about have a certain stylised quality to them that is more in keeping with the action in a wuxia film like House of Flying Daggers or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than anything out of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.

Overall, Children of Earth and Sky is an enjoyable read, though perhaps one that is more attractive to readers who are willing to forgive an author whose idea of “world-building” is to take real-world locations, history, and personages, and alter them only a very little bit in order to call it a “world”. The characterisation and the plot have some issues, but the quality of the writing goes a long way towards making this novel more than simply “tolerable” to read. fourstarbanner


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