children of earth and sky book coverReviewed by Alexander Morrison

A young pirate seeks to make her name and prove that she can add to her town’s already legendary reputation. A talented painter accepts a life-changing commission. A merchant used to taking chances takes the biggest one of his career to date. A disgraced noblewoman becomes a spy to escape the restraints of her family. And a young soldier prepares for a deadly march north. These are the core stories that make up Children of Earth and Sky, a story of the rise and fall of empires told by people who intersect only in the smallest ways with the mighty who make the decisions. The merchant state of Seressa is caught in the middle of a religious war between the Holy Jaddite and Osmanli Empires, and their meddling may make or break the oncoming war.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s cast here is expansive, but its core – Danica the pirate, Leonora the spy, Pero the artist, Marin the merchant – is excellent, and they have strong chemistry with one another. Once Kay gets them all together, the book soars, and perhaps its biggest tragedy is that they are forced apart too soon. Kay is great at capturing the essence of art and the passion of the artist, so it’s no surprise that Pero is our key point-of-view character, but the book is great at spreading the love around–and using each character to give us a different feel for what’s going on. Danica, in particular, brings a pleasant kick to every scene she’s in, a holy hell-raiser out for blood and unafraid to speak her mind. Kay can sometimes fall back a little too easily on a couple stock types – thoughtfully introverted military man; uncannily quick-witted connoisseur of the arts – but his core cast here is well fleshed-out and interesting.

Which is good, because Children of Earth and Sky is, unfortunately, perilously slow to get started, and you spend a lot of time with these people before he suggests why, or what their meaning is. I was a bit over a hundred pages in before I felt as though the story really got started for most of these characters, and even then, there are a handful of threads that only barely connect. One seemingly major character only seems to interact with the rest of the cast for two scenes quite late in the book; a character to whom we are introduced early on is only ever referenced, and even then, barely; one set of characters offer a fascinating little side-story, but one that doesn’t really connect to the rest of the narrative. The historical narrative with which Kay is playing, a conflict between Ottomans and Christians near Turkey, is undeniably interesting, but I don’t think Kay found the right point of entry to turn it into a single, coherent narrative.

Guy Gavriel Kay remains a less cynical, less bloated alternative to the gritty, realistic fantasy of George R.R. Martin. While Children of Earth and Sky isn’t among his finest works – his last book, River of Stars, is stronger – there’s a lot to recommend it. Kay specializes in nuanced characters who fit well into the epic sweep of history, and while at times that sweep can overwhelm the book, Kay has a talent for grounding big stories in tiny personality quirks. Indeed, part of the issue with Children of Earth and Sky is that it often removes that grounding element, stepping back from intense character moments and deep tragedy at the last second. It’s an unfortunate tendency that mars an otherwise enjoyable novel more than once. Kay’s best work often uses fantasy to contextualize history, humanizing larger-than-life figures with nuanced thematic content; Children of Earth and Stars seems to use fantasy to observe history, its characters too scattered and too swept aside by the vicissitudes of fate to offer context. It’s still a sensitively observed, well-written fantasy novel, one that I feel comfortable recommending given how late it kept me up once I really got into it, but it lacks that special something that sets Kay’s work above so many fellow fantasists.

Alexander Morrison is a writer and educator in the Midwest. He divides his time pretty evenly between reading, writing, film, and Dark Souls, so you can tell he’s pretty well rounded. You can read his thoughts about love & sex in pop culture at Cinema Romantique.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by NAL. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.