PROS: Superb world building, rigorous research, and achingly detailed lives of its characters; a Renaissance that doesn’t forget brown people existed.
CONS: Plot can be slow; not all characters are given enough to do.
BOTTOM LINE: Another successful Literary Fantasy from Guy Gavriel Kay, where the quiet is as important as the noise.
Guy Gavriel Kay picks hard targets. Children of Earth and Sky is a novel about the conflict between what people want to do with their lives, and how others define them. This is the theme of Pero Villani, an artist who’s worked his entire life to paint one thing he can be proud of, only for his employer to order that canvas destroyed. The theme follows to dire times, as when a skirmish between forces on the highway could change international affairs, but the archers involved are just scrambling to survive. This gives rise to a conflict larger than the entire novel, between a fantastical Renaissance Italy and their Ottoman counterpart. Neither side cares about each other’s interests or cultures, only the anticipated threats.
Where switching points of view is often cloying in Fantasy, the disorientation is key to the pleasure. Early on we meet Marin Djivo in bed, saddened that his lover is already dressing to leave him. He’s caught up in economic intrigue and a pit of depression and feels so fully defined that I was stunned to later meet him from Pero’s point of view and learn Marin was supposed to be gorgeous and dashing. It’s because Marin doesn’t see himself that way, and that inequity is part of what makes him attractive to others. You could argue that they misread him. The novel would like you to argue about it.
This is the reason you’re reading. Yes, empires are heading into war, and our lead characters are assembled on a perilous spying mission. But that’s just what endangers their lives. It’s never the point. Some leads are killed before their arcs end, while others outlive their arcs leaving you to wonder what’s left for them. Their lives keep dispersing, and you’ll follow them toiling in foreign courts or falling bleeding to the deck of a ship because of the strong sense of defined existence.
The novel has less unified forward motion than Under Heaven or River of Stars, trading it for an even deeper investment into what it is to be very small in the face of historic conflicts. This often means waiting, the pain of resignation, and chapters passing with the characters accomplishing little. Pero and Marin’s allies, Dr. Jacopo Miucci and Leonora Valeri must pose as a married couple, pretending this, but also helplessly pretending they couldn’t be poisoned or abducted on any given day. That will frustrate some readers, where others will become hooked on its subtle pleasures. Those times when you despair for a character stranded in the wrong place in the world, and an errant line suggests someone they love might be nearby. Out of nowhere, you hope for them.
Danica is going to be many people’s favorite character, especially if you felt stifled by the role of women in River of Stars. She has clear missions in life, both to intervene in the bloodshed, and to find her lost brother. She’s highly capable with a bow, unafraid of going rogue from the establishment, always brings her pet dog and her grandfather’s ghost on an adventure.
Oh yeah. Danica’s dead grandfather talks to her in italics, and it’s delightfully disorienting. The other characters are trapped in unrelentingly plausible existences – the strangest thing about Pero’s life is that he painted something nice once. Because the lives we observe are so grounded, this bald supernaturalism jars the reader. The novel doesn’t even wink at this.
This is a broken-in sort of haunting, Danica casually arguing with a dead man while rowing off into deep waters to foil an assassination plot. You’re knocked back by it, just as you’re knocked back by how Pero sees Marin, or how the scenes switch from past to present tense. If a major death or plot burst happens, don’t be surprised if the point of view suddenly swings to put it in an entirely different context. That’s how Children of Earth and Sky works. Your head keeps swiveling.
Danica’s brother Neven was taken among the djannis, a holy warrior path serving the dreaded khalif. Danica and her ghost of a grandfather cannot rest until he’s found, but it’s been years. As she ventures with the group hoping for a lead on him, we become increasingly worried that one of them will find the other with an arrow on the battlefield and not even recognize who they’ve slain. It would be awful to say if that happens. But I guarantee when they cross paths, the novel has an enormous payload for you.
This is far from a conventional fantasy novel. The fantastic elements are often spare, the cultures are rigorously researched, and the characters are often as defined by lack of agency as what they do when they have it. It’s a novel to be savored, not devoured.
John Wiswell lives where New York keeps all its trees. John’s stories have been published at Fireside, Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction, and PodCastle. He has been chronically ill for most of his life, and thanks books for restoring his will to live on many nights. He will happily talk books with you until you’re both sleep deprived. Follow John on his blog, on Facebook as John Wiswell, and on Twitter as @Wiswell.