It’s been three long years since River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay’s last novel, so the publication of Children of Earth and Sky is quite an event and a cause for some celebration. From a personal point of view, the new book is made even more exciting by its setting. While Under Heaven and River of Stars took me out of my historical comfort zone – unfolding in the alternate-universe empire of Kitai, which drew on the dynastic splendour of medieval China – Children plunged me into the knotty political world of my very favourite period: the Renaissance.
When Pero Villani is called before the Council of Twelve late one night, he has good cause to worry. What interest can a penniless young artist – his fame eclipsed by the memory of his celebrated father – hold for the senior magistrates of the maritime republic of Seressa? But, to Pero’s astonishment, the Council makes him an offer: not necessarily one he can’t refuse, but one it would be folly to turn down. He is asked to travel east to the great city of Asharias, once called Sarantium but rechristened by its Osmanli conquerors, to paint a portrait of the most powerful man in the world: the khalif, Gurçu the Destroyer. It’s the kind of commission that can make an artist’s fortune. When Pero returns to Seressa, wealth, influence and patronage will be his for the asking. If he returns. If he survives.
The journey to Asharias is full of dangers, and not just because the Osmanli are gearing up for another attack on the borders of the holy Jaddite empire. First Pero has to get across the sea to the smaller seafaring republic of Dubrava – Seressa’s rival – which means braving waters infested by the pirates of Senjan. All in all, it’s an offer that a sane man would think twice about. But Pero’s young and desperate for recognition and (in the eyes of the Council) expendable. It’s an arrangement that suits everyone. Besides, Pero won’t be travelling alone. He’ll be accompanied by Jacopo Miucci, a physician taking up a state position in Dubrava, and by Miucci’s new wife, the beautiful Leonora, whose vivacity hides secrets of her own. The destinies of these three will become linked to those of several others, each with a different perspective on the current troubles: the Senjan archer Danica Gradek; the Dubravae merchant Marin Djivo; and Damaz, captured as a child and trained by the Osmanli to become a djanni, a formidable warrior. In microcosm, their complicated interactions reflect and transcend the concerns of the wider world.
The familiar themes of Kay’s novels reappear here, and never have they been more timely. What should we do when personal conscience conflicts with the political stance of our country or community? How do our smallest actions reverberate in the world around us? Is it possible to foster friendship, respect and tolerance across the boundaries of differing faiths? How do changes, whether thrust upon us or chosen by us – moving places, changing names, choosing a new path – affect our inner selves? These questions have gained a stronger, bitterer resonance in the months since Kay finished writing his book, which makes his thoughtful, generous probing of the issues even more poignant.
But of course the resonances are historical too, and anyone who knows me can imagine all too well the way I bounced with delight every time I discovered a new Renaissance allusion. Having said that, Kay doesn’t slavishly reproduce historical fact with the names changed, which meant that I often found myself worrying like a small, determined terrier at the question of exactly when we were. Here was Venice, of course, and the Council of Ten; and the links between Villani and Bellini were clear. So far so good. Bellini travelled to paint Mehmed the Conqueror in 1479; the recent fall of Sarantium would allude to the capture of Constantinople in 1453; and yet the eccentric Emperor Rudolf had snuck in when he wouldn’t even be born until 1552! The point, of course, is that I was missing the point. This isn’t lazily appropriated history, but a juxtaposition of events which creates a condensed, convincing sense of the period’s simmering political and religious tensions. And it’s helped to pinpoint a gap in my historical knowledge: I’m now acutely aware of my ignorance about Renaissance Dubrovnik.
The last time I read an historical fantasy take on the Renaissance, I wasn’t impressed, but it’ll come as little surprise to any of you to hear that we’re in thoroughly safe hands with Kay. One of the pleasant aspects of the new novel is that it offers us a new canvas, while also acknowledging the two books which I consider to be his best: Sailing to Sarantium and The Lions of Al-Rassan. Children of Earth and Sky differs in its structure, in that this canvas feels broader and more ambitious in scale. The first part of the book introduces new protagonists in every chapter, which gives the reader a sense of spiralling out from Seressa through a web of networks, intrigues, alliances and grievances. Ultimately the story focuses in on a handful of individuals, as in Kay’s other books, but initially I felt swept across a dizzying panorama of this Adriatic world, leaping from character to character as fire traces its way across a line of beacons.
I’ve held off posting on the book until the eve of publication here in the UK, and it comes highly recommended. If you haven’t read a novel by Kay before, this is a fine introduction to his readable, ‘one more chapter’ style, and to his explorations of the complexities, challenges and joys of human nature. For those who’ve already read and enjoyed his earlier books, you can rest assured that this is another compelling journey into the history of a hauntingly familiar world.
So go, buy it, read it, and then come back and let’s discuss it!
I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.