My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’ve been reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s books since I was thirteen or so. I’ve made my way through all of them, including his volume of poetry. Lately, however, I’ve had a harder time getting into the stories. For me, the pinnacle of Kay’s work is The Lions of Al-Rassan, in which he captures beautifully the idea of a war in which there is no right–and no wrong–side. Nothing since has quite measured up.
Children of Earth and Sky is, like many of Kay’s books, set in his not-quite-real parallel universe, which contains many historical similarities to our own world without being absolutely bound by actual history. The novels also contain some magic, though often only hints of it. This particular volume is farther forward in the history of this world than Kay has ever gone, taking place in the otherworldly equivalent of the Renaissance. Its setting covers much the same ground as the Sarantine Mosaic novels, though the works are set nearly a millennium apart.
This is where the first problem arises. I know Kay likes to build in little connections between his novels, and there’s nothing wrong with that, or at least not until the references start taking up nearly as much time as the narrative, and not always for much of a purpose. It’s nice to know what’s become of Crispin’s work and some of the places he visited, but a lot of this stuff seems to be here simply so people who have read the Sarantium books can go, “Hey…I remember that!” After a while, it begins to read as a little self-indulgent.
The characters here are also a bit more sparsely sketched out than they could be. Kay tends to go into great detail when he creates his characters, and the novel starts out promisingly, but the characters never truly grow beyond their own broad types. There are only so many times the narrator can tell us a character is “very young” (the narrator seems fixated on everybody’s youth) before we start wishing for less harping on age and more attention to character development. None of the characters does anything particularly surprising. They’re all smarter than the average bear and have a tendency to get out of scrapes by saying or doing exactly the right thing at the right moment (when they make mistakes, the narrator chimes in with, “It was a mistake,” or something similar). They’re also all the very best at everything. Danica is the best fighter, Marin the most clever merchant, Pero the greatest artist (eventually), Leonora the best [spoilers, but believe me, she’s the best at it]. No one is incompetent at anything. Consequently, even though the characters are quite far apart in their situations, stations, and occupations, they have a certain sameness. It doesn’t help that Danica and Leonora, the only two important point-of-view women, are both young, beautiful, and blonde.
Kay’s treatment of women sometimes bothers me, though certainly not always. Jehane of The Lions of Al-Rassan is, despite being stuck in a be-cursed love triangle, a well-written character with both strengths and flaws. Other female characters who manage to transcend the radiant beauty Kay almost always gives them (with one or two exceptions) do also pop up from time to time. However, many of these women are defined mostly by their sexuality. The argument that women’s power in a patriarchal society is often a manipulative one that works largely through sexual favours is, well, problematic to start with, but even if we accept it as true, we run up against the problem that in this particular story, the two major female characters are an exemplary warrior and a woman who eventually gains a type of power that has little, if not nothing, to do with sex. Why, then, the continual emphasis on these characters sleeping with various people (even, sometimes, having to sleep with various people)? If the same attention were paid to the sexual exploits of every male character, fine, but it’s really not. When Pero is forced into a sexual encounter, it’s framed as an uncomfortable and backward situation; when the same thing happens to both Danica and Leonora, we get to accept that as the way things are (plus justified because the men are kind). While both women are strong people, they’re not particularly strong characters because they’re both two-dimensional and seem to exist mostly for the male characters, even as they go around accomplishing extraordinary things of their own volition.
To be fair, most of the characters are weak here. I know I keep coming back to the characters, but the problem is that this novel is less character driven than it thinks it is. Things happen because the plot tells them to, especially where Damaz is concerned. Towards the end, the story becomes more and more abstract, with the narrator pulling right back from the characters and reciting what will happen to them years or even decades in the future. Kay does like to have these pulling-back moments, where he examines context and wider consequences, but he uses the technique so often here, especially later on, that he simultaneously yanks us out of the story and telegraphs the plot with lots and lots and lots of heavy-handed foreshadowing. I’d rather not be told point blank that X is meaningful.
That said, I did find the novel hard to put down once I was well into it. I read the second half all in one day while I should have been doing about twelve other things. Even if the novel as a whole is a bit disjointed and predictable, it contains some great set pieces, such as the last stand of a tiny band of raiders against a massive army or Pero’s conversations with the terrifying khalif he is painting (it would actually have been nice to have more of the latter). Danica’s dead grandfather is also pretty amazing. There’s plenty here to like, despite the problems.
I’ll continue to read Kay’s novels, but I’m still waiting for the next The Lions of Al-Rassan. As long as the characters continue to be broadly drawn and predictable, and as long as Kay continues his gradual slide back towards the sentimentality that characterised his early novels, I’m not sure I’ll get it.