Finding a groove and sticking with it, Guy Gavriel Kay has been writing historical fantasy with the same m.o. since the publication of A Song for Arbonne. Aside from Ysabel, eight novels have twisted history ever so slightly to tell a tale that didn’t happen but might as well have given the verisimilitude. Drama reigning, the stories are plot and character oriented, with love, honor, virtue, and the other hallmark themes of opera front and center. Kay’s latest, Children of Earth and Sky (2016, Berkley Publishing Group), does not find the needle jumping track.
Occurring in the years following Kay’s earlier duology Sarantine Mosaic, Children of Earth and Sky is set in the Eastern Mediterranean after the Osmanli have retaken Asharias. The Balkan peninsula falling smack in the middle of Jaddite and Osmanli interests, the majority of the action occurs in and around the country of Dubrova, and the religious and political intrigue they are stuck in the middle of, not to mention generate on their own. Spies and assassins flowing freely, a handful of characters ply the waters of fate doing what they think is best. A pirate woman has her loyalties tested, a young artist is thrown into the thick of political tension by a commission he can’t refuse, and a merchant must put his martial skills to use in a court threatening to collapse around him—the starring characters among them. Their fates spread out through the years and places, we don’t always get what we want.
Something of a return for Kay, Children of Earth and Sky most closely resembles A Song for Arbonne. A kitchen sink of tenses (past to present) and foreshadowing (“He could not have known that…” “Later, she would wonder if…” ) are thrown at the reader. Likewise, there is a light, or at least lighter, tone to proceedings. Where Under Heaven and River of Stars, Kay’s two most recent novels, were weighty, heavy tomes that married gray mood to storyline, Children of Earth and Sky tends more toward the comedic side of the theatrical scale. Gravtias still exists in occasional moments, but events are delved into with less detail, and the language can be aloof—intentionally aloof, certainly, in a way that floats the story.
This leads to some issues with the novel; Children of Earth and Sky often feels routine. Lines appearing that the majority of epic fantasy on the market these days has rendered mundane, the reader finds the likes of “One of the things Hrant Bunic had learned through years of raiding was that if you could provoke an enemy to rage he was more likely to make mistakes.” The result is that the sections of text which might possess some profundity lack punch. The following would seem to define the novel, or at least a major aspect of it:
“…He enlisted in the army of the next appointed emperor of Jad and died in a later war. There are always later wars.
We are children of earth and sky.”
But this thought is cut off at the knees by rehashed soap opera such as:
“I wanted you on the ship,” he says, pulling back for a moment.
Her eyes are very blue. “Of course you did. Men are like that.”
“No. Well, yes, they are. We are. But it wasn’t only because—“
“Stop talking,” she says. Her mouth takes his again.
Kay has said that “I want readers caught emotionally and intellectually by a book.” With maudlin trite such as that above, however, it’s difficult to achieve the latter. The characters, while not super-heroes, nevertheless take on proportions larger than life for it. They are easily likable and hateable people, and therefore must suffer the consequences of distancing themselves from reality, a reality in this case that is needed to achieve any type of serious thematic or philosophical agenda.
Children of Earth and Sky is a faster paced, more action-oriented novel than Kay’s two previous novels. This is certain to satisfy some while leaving others wanting. While I personally find myself in the latter group (Kay is capable of writing more humane literature), readers looking for easily accessible, historical drama on the Mediterranean with derring-do heroines, swashbuckling merchants, shifty spies, delicately feuding kingdoms, sex, and warring armies will find something to enjoy. Signature Kay or formulaic Kay, regardless, it feels written on autopilot, which, when compared to many other writers, is not a bad thing.