Guy Gavriel Kay builds on some familiar themes in his latest-but-one novel Children of Earth and Sky, which takes place in the same world as The Lions of Al-Rassan and the later-published A Brightness Long Ago. It’s a book interested in the fates of ordinary people swept up in the course of history, and in how the course of a life can be changed seemingly randomly, in a moment, and is set like most of Kay’s other work in an analogue of medieval Europe “with a quarter turn to the fantastic”.
Pero, a struggling artist, is sent on a life-changing commission to paint the Osmanli khalif in the holy city of Sarantium, although the actual mission his government assigns him is much more sinister. Danica, inhabitant of the pirate town of Senjan, prevents a massacre at the cost of her ability to return home. Leonora, a disgraced daughter of the aristocracy posing as Pero’s wife, latches onto their dangerous mission as a chance to escape a life of shame and repression in a religious retreat.
In another fantasy novel, this would be the set-up for a tale of court intrigue and forbidden love in the decadent streets of Sarantium (Kay’s analogue of Constantinople). In this novel, though, the characters don’t even reach Sarantium until over three-quarters of the way in, and they spend comparatively little time there when they do. Nor is this a picaresque tale of colourful adventure and incident (like, say, Becky Chambers’ episodic journey-novel The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet). Instead, the length of their journey to Sarantium gives us time to sit with these characters, to embark with them on a process of discovery: of their choices and capabilities, limited as these are by historical, social and economic circumstance; of the kinds of political and moral action that they feel personally able to take. It’s almost a Bildungsroman of sorts: these are all quite young people, and in a sense this process of discovery is a process of self-discovery, of finding out who they are. Structurally, if not tonally, then, Children of Earth and Sky turns out to be a classic there-and-back-again quest novel: the characters embark on a physical journey that also entails a psychological journey, and return to their homes changed, better able to function in society.
The length of time the novel spends on the journey to Sarantium also works affectively, tying into the more simulationist aspects of Kay’s writing: in this pre-industrial period, significant travel takes a very long time, and we experience that along with the characters. That sounds obvious, but it’s things like this, choices made at the structural and ideological level, that make Kay’s historical fantasy feel truly historical, as opposed to reading like modernity dressed up in funny clothes.
The novel’s quest structure, though, does come with some problematic ideological associations which feel less deliberate and more simply encoded in how Western literature works. The quest as a structuring principle is fundamentally about encountering the Other: think of Bilbo in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, venturing out from his safe English idyll in Hobbiton to battle giant spiders and dragons and trolls, things that are fundamentally outside normal experience. Kay’s Other, though, is not an idealised folkloric-heroic landscape with vaguely Nordic overtones but an analogue of a real historical place, an Islamic-coded city whose ruler is portrayed as arbitrarily cruel even by fifteenth-century standards. (I don’t know how historically accurate this portrayal is, but even so it’s interesting to consider that the Islamic-coded Asharites are rarely depicted positively in the novel. By contrast, one of the three main characters of The Lions of Al-Rassan is an Asharite, and the novel in which he appears is all about the desirability of religious tolerance.) This seems to be a pretty textbook example of Orientalism: in encountering this Islamic Other our Western protagonists are able to define themselves in opposition to it, and so return home better able to function in the society that also defines itself in opposition to that Other. We can see the same kind of thing going on in contemporary discourses demonising Islam as incompatible with “Western values”: it’s a process that causes real, tangible harm.
As a novel that treads little new ground for Kay, and one that seems to row back on earlier, more nuanced treatments of religious difference, Children of Earth and Sky feels weak, less challenging and more obviously constructed than many of those earlier works. In its Western-centrism it’s also less of a corrective to traditional medieval fantasy than his other work. And yet, for my money, it’s still some of the best historical fantasy out there, if that’s an itch you want to scratch: leisurely and introspective, more sincerely interested in the lived experience of real people in real history than most authors working in the genre.