Oh-Kay

Halfway through Guy Gavriel Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky, I got bogged down. Took it back to the library. But I’ve liked some of Kay’s other books, and the story nagged at me, so I checked it out again.

I’m glad I did. It’s a wonderful story.

It’s set in the same world as Kay’s two-volume Sarantium Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors), but a thousand years or so later. The world of the Mediterranean in the Renaissance is only thinly fictionalized: Seressa is obviously Venice, Sarantium is Constantinople, the Osmanli empire of the Asharites is the Islamic or Ottoman empire, Rhodias is Greece, and the High Patriarch is the Pope.

The worshipers of Jad (that is, Christians, more or less, though here they worship the sun, and the worship of the Son is a heresy) are locked in a military and cultural struggle with the Asharites. In a complex and delicate juggling act, the merchants of the city-states of Seressa and Dubrava trade with both the Jaddites and the Asharites. The international political intrigue is a bubbling stew.

And that’s only the background. The story itself revolves around a Seressini painter, Pero Villani, who is sent to paint a portrait of the Grand Khalif of the Osmanli empire, an assignment that he is not likely to survive. Along the way he meets a young woman who is being sent to Dubrava as a spy, a handsome young merchant of Dubrava, and a young woman who is very good with a bow and bitterly hates the Asharites. It’s an unlikely bunch to be traveling together, and when they’re attacked by an Osmanli regiment, things get complicated.

What put me off the first time — two things, really. First, there’s a lot of violent death in the story. Second, we’re given page after page of summary, some of it filling in the history and political maneuvering of Kay’s invented world and some of it narrations in which days or weeks in the lives of various characters are sketched quickly. This is a thing that modern writers are instructed never to do. Kay is telling rather than showing. He does give us plenty of detailed, dramatized scenes, but I found myself growing impatient. I would have liked to have more scenes and less summary.

To be fair, the book would have been three times as long if all the action had been dramatized. And it would have been dull. The story covers quite a lot of territory. Fitting it all into 570 pages demanded, I’m sure, some careful pruning.

A bit more pruning wouldn’t have hurt. Kay belabors some of the history and some of the narrative, giving it to us two or even three times in different chapters, just to remind us what the stakes are. On top of which, he’s fond of tucking in little one-sentence proverbs and philosophical asides. Chapter 11 begins, “Facing death in the morning can change one’s day.” Or this, from the middle of the next chapter: “It is a mistake to think that drama is steady, continuous, even in tumultuous times. Most often there are lulls and lacunae in the life of a person or a state. There is apparent stability, order, an illusion of calm — and then circumstances can change at speed.” Or this: “The destiny of empires turned on spring rainfall.”

There are even flash-forwards, narrating briefly events that won’t happen for years to come. Ultimately, though, the way to look at this is that Kay is the master of his own distinctive style. He’s making up the rules as he goes along, and he’s good enough to get away with it.

The second half of the book is less bloody and serves up more narrative twists. I won’t spoil the ending for you; I’ll just say it was emotionally satisfying. In the midst of death, life goes on.

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