Through most of Children of Earth and Sky I was not looking forward to writing this review. I have long looked forward to reading Kay, sold by rave reviews, his work editing The Silmarillion, his historical-bent, and an excerpt of River of Stars. I have a copy of The Lions of Al-Rassan lying around, but getting my hands on an ARC of Children of Earth and Sky was the perfect excuse. I do have my issues with the book, but happily much of the experience was saved in the end (and eventually I will get around to finally reading The Lions of Al-Rassan and River of Stars).
Kay uses an ensemble cast to weave his tale. Pero, the starving artist. Danica, the reaver burning for revenge. Damaz, the soldier taken as a child. Marin, the son of a merchant. Leonora, a daughter of the nobility pulled from a convent to serve as a spy. Four of the five soon converge on Dubrava, the roles they have been assigned interacted with and reacting against those of the others. All set in what closely resembles the Adriatic Sea and the Balkans of our early modern age.
Kay takes a deeply historical approach to his fantasy. Indeed, it may be what it is best known for. Some of the terms are real—Osmanli, for example, is an archaic term for Ottoman—but others appear to be invented. Some analogs are obvious—Seressa as Venice, Sarantium/Asharias and Constantinople/Istanbul. Others are not. I pulled names like Zadar, Lastovo, and Ulcinj before Kay gave away the game in his author’s note at the end naming Senj as the inspiration for Senjan (rather obvious once you see it, but Senj apparently has a low enough profile to escape my attention in my initial browse through Wikipedia). Dubrava is Dubrovnik, then the head of the city-state of Ragusa, and Skandir is an expy of Albanian hero Skanderbeg. Along with Senjan, it gives Children of Earth and Sky a heavy Croatian and Balkan flavor, and those more obscure sources balance well with the familiar, such as Venice, which I know much better after K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife and Roger Crowley’s wonderful history of the rise and fall of Venice’s empire City of Fortune. A Venice analog even showed up in Miles Cameron’s The Fell Sword (although Cameron’s Traitor Son Cycle is more of a half-turn to the fantastic.
Religion has a similar historical inspiration, with a twist. Jaddites (Christians) worship the sun, and only easterners worship his son as well. The Osmanli (Ottoman Muslims) worship the stars. And the Kindath (Jews) worship the moons, of which there are two. The additional blue moon and one ghost, along with lots of hints and suspicions, are the entirety of the speculative elements, to go along with less common sights in fantasy like cannons and primitive guns.
Kay’s approach is the best part. It fired me up to learn the real history. (Some of the above I knew, some I pulled from the author’s note at the end, and some I found reading up on the relevant parties.) It also gives an edge to the proceedings, and a grounding that makes it all the more effective. When characters are dying of infection or fever it’s a little easier to forget you’re reading a story and not in one.
Unfortunately, Kay’s style put me off. Kay never says once what he can say twice, never says twice what he can say three times, and never says three times what he can say four times. The high number of the POVs and the nature of the plot, which centers around spying, exacerbate the problem. There is a welcome amount of sex, but it’s almost to the point of gratuity. There is a staccato beat to his short sentences that reads awkwardly. Kay sometimes confusingly switches back and forth between POVs in the middle of the scene. He also occasionally switches to an omniscient view and comments on the future, a tool which can be very effective for foreshadowing or to create tension, but which rarely works here. All of the above conspired to sap a lot of the energy from the middle of the book and prevented what should have been a couple Oh Shit moments from really working.
It left me, as I said above, nonplussed. A three star book, and a disappointment from an author as renowned as Kay. Then there was one great battle that incorporates and subverts all the relevant tropes at the same time and is worth half a star extra on its own. Kay picked up another with the ending. Not with an action packed climax and or unexpected twist that makes perfect sense in retrospect, but with a final piece to every character arc that fits just perfectly so and sometimes illuminates an entire arc that had been built unbeknownst to me as the reader. It was beautiful, a master piece of writing, and moved me right at the end in a way books not written by Cormac McCarthy seldom can, and with the added benefit of not being nigh incomprehensible until.
Disclosure: I received an ARC through NetGalley.