Come for the Pirates, Stay for the History

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Reading Challenge: A book that is published in 2016.

First, disclaimer time: I got this book as a free advanced readers copy through a Goodreads giveaway, with expectations of a fair and honest review when I finished reading it. That’s what I’m doing. That’s also why I’m reviewing a book that comes out May 10th in April. Are we all up to speed? Good, on to the review.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: to paraphrase something Dorothy Parker once wrote in a review of a very different author, I will never understand why there isn’t more screaming about Guy Gavriel Kay. He writes sweeping historical fantasy with an eye for both the broad stream of history and the little pebbles that get swept up in it. He writes interesting, nuanced male and female characters. He writes well, in general, which shouldn’t be overlooked.

Children of Earth and Sky takes place in the same multi-mooned world that many of his other books take place in, that world that just happens to bear a startling resemblance to medieval and Renaissance Europe. There’s a multitude of powers at work here, but fear not, there’s a list of characters and a map at the front of the book to guide you, which is more than some other epics I could name. This time we’re centered more around the eastern Mediterranean than France or Spain, and we have a whole stable full of interesting characters to follow: politicians, merchants, an artist (probably my favorite), a few warriors who live only for revenge, and maybe a ghost or two. There’s a Renaissance Ted Cruz who gets dealt with in a satisfying manner (that’s Leonora’s dad, although you should be able to spot the resemblance pretty easily). There are “fallen women” all over the place, but you shouldn’t count them out. One thing that I always enjoy about Kay’s women is that while some of them do shake off their assigned gender roles in order to achieve some power over their own lives, there are plenty who find a way to reach similar ends in a more acceptably feminine role. And they don’t have to hate each other: the quick friendship between Danica and Leonora was one of the relationships I most enjoyed.

Like most epic fantasy, there are violent deaths a-plenty and some fairly strange sex scenes that blur the lines of consent. Unlike most epic fantasy, none of this ever feels gratuitous. The sex scenes all have a purpose, in fact, which is kind of amazing. The deaths also have a purpose, and I never have that feeling of “well, you didn’t care about this character, why should I?” that I’ve mentioned before. Actually, I can’t help imagining that this author genuinely mourns some of these characters. And now I’m picturing a little memorial service at the completion of each novel, with the author holding a candle, going down a list, and intoning “I’m sorry I let you get eaten by wolves. I’m sorry your throat was cut for reasons that weren’t your fault. I’m sorry you got that wound infection, but you really were kind of a dick and you probably deserved it.”

Now, this book is not perfect. If you want to read a perfect Kay, you should read Under Heaven or The Lions of al-Rassan, maybe Tigana (I can never tell if Tigana is perfect or I just love it so much because I read it first). The plot arc is…more of a plateau with a sudden drop than an arc. Like River of Stars (which was much less successful in this), it’s as much about the things that don’t happen as it is about the things that do. The biggest climactic, history-changing event is one person’s decision to say a certain thing, which is followed by everyone we care about getting the hell out of the way of the fallout. There’s also the habit Kay has of changing perspectives multiple times in the middle of dramatic scenes. Mostly it works, and it doesn’t feel gimmicky, and it holds my attention. But there were a few times it seemed to go on too long in this one.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This is still one of the best books you’ll read all year. If this was the first Kay I’d read I would still be raving about it and running out to read all the others. But some special authors get held to a higher standard with me, and he’s one of them. Not the best, but still really good.

Suggested pairing: They drink so much wine in this one, it kind of has to be wine. A nice red. You know what I really like? Gnarly Head Old Vine Zin. Let’s go with that, and raise a toast to all our favorite fallen literary companions.

 

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