Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

Ah, Mr Kay. What a wonderful writer you are. But are you fantasy? I have these conversations from time to time with friends. The answer’s yes, but the paucity of supernatural elements in some of his books stretch the definition a little. And maybe if he hadn’t broken in as a fantasy author, maybe we wouldn’t see it that way.

However, with Children of Earth and Sky, GGK has proven a little fantasy can go a long way.

Look at that solemn shiny fella being all-seeing and shit

Children of Earth and Sky is set in a renamed (but basically the same) version of Europe shortly after the fall of Constantinople (here named Sarantium), with the action flitting between the great city, Venice (Seressa), the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, and Dubrovnik (Dubrava). It follows a sizable cast but the most prominent of them are four that meet on a ship going from Seressa to Dubrava. Pero Villani is an artist sent to paint the Osmanli Khalif, conqueror of Sarantium, and spy on him. Leonora Valeri is another spy, this one intended to stay in Dubrava, having taken the offer to escape the sanctuary her noble family placed her in as punishment for getting pregnant. Marin Djivo is the merchant’s son on whose ship they travel, a courageous and impulsive man chafing at his circumscribed life. And Danica Gradek is a pirate and raider as a means towards revenge on the Osmanlis that killed her family, and who hears the voice of her grandfather’s ghost.

That ghost is about the sole fantastical touch in the novel but it opens so many doors and drives the whole plot (which I will plead the fifth on to avoid spoilers). Speaking of the plot, it is a masterpiece of subtlety and natural coincidences, of actions taken in a heartbeat that reverberate for years and years. For me, the pinnacle of plotting is when resolutions feel unexpected but inevitable in hindsight, and Kay does that repeatedly with seeming ease here.

The desire to know however, although strong, wasn’t the main reason I kept turning pages and finished half of this rather large book in a single night. It is the atmosphere, the feeling of being in a fascinating world with fascinating people. Part of that is Kay’s prose style; dramatic, emotional, constantly moving the camera around to take us smoothly from close PoV to omniscient narrator. It lends the story added grandeur and emotional impact. Most of it though is down to Kay’s choice about who to tell stories of. The period is interesting – I’d never heard of the Uskoks but I will research now – and the characters a great deal more.

My favourite part of Kay’s character studies is the way he focuses on their strength and resilience in the face of tragedy. Pero’s arc, as he finds himself with progressively more to lose and less power with which to fight, is the one I enjoyed reading most. Danica’s arc is probably the one with the most to think about, as her hardheaded thirst for revenge carries her ever further away from the world she knows and the ties she’s made. It’s certainly an interesting contrast with Leonora, whose path is that of a more conventional powerful woman of the period, and who also gets many of the best scenes. She also gets the moment that caused my eyes to fill up the most, as is often the case with Kay’s works. What caused me such melancholy? Again, details would be spoilers, but suffice to say it came down to the way that GGK highlights our shared humanity, the shared knowledge that pain and suffering are coming all of our ways, that not all of us will be lucky enough to have enough joy to counterbalance it and even then, it is only a period of sunlight before the cloud comes again. And that can be enough if you choose it, to count your blessings and gifts, or not if you choose that instead. And who knows where your choices will lead?

“We cannot know. But sometimes there is kindness, and sometimes there is love.”

We are all Children of Earth and Sky. And now I’m a little melancholy all over again.

4 thoughts on “Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. I have not read this book yet, but I really loved Lions of Al-Rassan and Under Heaven. (Although River of Stars was just ok, and I couldn’t finish The Fionnavar Trilogy). I remember actually feeling a little annoyed that there wasn’t more magic in Lions, for example. I always want just a *touch* more magic in his books, but I love reading them, anyway.


    1. I loved Lions but never finished it. Not sure how that one makes sense. And I think this one has that touch more supernatural than Lions that the books can really use. I wish there was more, but this is all it needs.

      I think making my way through the entire Kay bibliography will be one of my priorities over the next few years.

      Liked by 1 person

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