Sunday, August 14, 2016

Children of Earth and Sky - Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is not a fast writer. His novels take a lot of research. Over the past two decades he has published about one book every three years. For his previous two novels, Kay immersed himself in various periods of Chinese history. The novels Under Heaven (2010) and River of Stars (2013) are arguably some of his best work. For his next project he moved back to Europe again. Children of Earth and Sky is a novel inspired by the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire and 15th century Croatia. It is territory that the reader well-antiquated with Kay's work will most likely be more familiar with. That familiarity can be seen as either the book's strength or greatest weakness. Personally I lean towards the latter.

Life is hard in the borderlands between the empire of the Kohlberg emperor and that of the Asharite conqueror of ancient Sarantium Grand Kalif Gurçu. Lesser powers risk getting mangled in the struggle for control over Trakasia and Sauradia. The mercantile republic of Seressa knows it cannot compete in a military sense. Money can buy influence though and Seressa has no lack of financial resources. Their aid comes at a price though. In recent years the pirates of Senjan have been a thorn in the side of the Asharites but they do not spare Seressa's mercantile fleet either. Their actions are disrupting trade, the lifeblood of Seressa. Getting rid of a few hundred pirates surely is a small price to pay for the continued financial support of one of the world's richest trading ports. A game of diplomacy, murder and open warfare ensues.

The novel contains everything one has come to expect from Kay. It is beautifully written as usual. He uses his omniscient narrator in his usual way. The novel follows quite a few characters in various locations. It allows the reader to follow the larger conflict in detail. The novel is set in a alternate Europe we've seen in many of his previous novels. It is a continent divided by three faiths. The Sun worshipping Jadites (Christian) people of the west, the Star worshipping Asharites (Muslims) of the east and the marginalized Moon worshipping Kindath (Jews) will be well known to the experienced Kay reader.

As usual Kay's story follows history for the most part. The main marker in the book is the fall of Sarantium, an analogue of Constantinople, which is said to be 25 years in the past. That would make it the year 1478. The Grand Kalif Gurçu is clearly based on Mehmed II the Conqueror, although Kay takes some liberties with the struggle over his succession. The Kohlberg dynasty is also clearly recognizable as the (Austrian) Habsburg family. Kay moved the reign of Rudolf II back a century, probably because he was a much more colourful character than Frederick III, who was the Holy Roman Emperor at the time the novel is set. Seressa is obviously inspired by Venice and another historical figure that makes an appearance is the Albanian nobleman Skanderbeg, who in later ages would be the inspiration for loads of nationalistic nonsense. Kay seems to have taken liberties with history here too, although he is not a romanticized figure in this novel.

The inspiration in the story is not in the main lines of history though. In his afterword Kay states that the idea for the story came from the Uskoks of Senj. Bands of irregular soldiers and pirates engaged in guerilla warfare against the Ottomans. Kay seems to have moved them back in time a bit too. The peak of their influence was in the second half of the sixteenth century. While I could trace back most of the history Kay uses in the novel quite easily, I had to look this one up. They appear to have been a small community that nevertheless made their impact felt. I guess you could call that the theme for this novel. None of the main characters are people history would remember for causing great political changes. They are footnotes in history at best. Yet all of their lives are touched by the struggle for power in the region, and in their own way, they help shape history.

Much of the novel is set in a corner of Europe Kay has visited before. It is the same land Crispus travels in Sailing to Sarantium (1998). There are frequent references to the Sarantine Mosaic novels in the story. The Mosaics themselves of course, but also the horse races, the Hagia Sophia (which parallel to history has been remade into an Asharite temple), the Sarantine empress Alixana and so forth. The book is a lament for lost Sarantium. So much so in fact, that in some places it overwhelms the plot. Many of Kay's characters are born after the fall of the city, which has some time before ceased to be a major power in the world. They would not see it with the same sense of history that Kay does. In fact, most of them have much more pressing concerns. Kay also adds references to the Belmote family from his novel The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995). It makes the novel one in which Kay looks back a lot. I felt that his own awareness of history was a bit out of balance with that of the characters in many of the chapters.

In his previous two novels Kay pushed himself. He tackled a piece of history not many westerners will be familiar with at that level of detail. It resulted in two fascinating books. In a way it was a break from the Eurocentric world he had been building until then. This book contains many of the elements he used in previous books but without that little extra the unfamiliar adds. He slips back into his comfort zone as it were. If anything it leans more heavily on history than it does on the individual strands of the story. Children of Earth and Sky is not a bad novel - I don't think Kay could write one if he tried - but it is too much more of the same. There will be many readers who are just fine with that, but for me it doesn't quite satisfy in the way his previous two novels have.

Book Details
Title: Children of Earth and Sky
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: New American Library
Pages: 571
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-47296-0
First published: 2016

1 comment:

  1. Fully agreed. I thought this book was Kay on autopilot. Under Heaven and River of Stars are a cut above.