Sarantium, the greatest city in the world, has fallen to the invading Asharites. A Grand Khalif rules from the city he calls Asharias, and his armies are continuing to advance into the heart of the holy Jaddite empire. For the cities of the Seressini Sea - mighty Seressa, growing Dubrava and the pirate haven of Senjan - these matters are distant and of limited importance. But this changes when the fates of several individuals collide and shift the fate of the world.
Guy Gavriel Kay is one of fantasy's foremost and most skilled authors, one who is capable of spinning an engrossing story from real history lightly salted with a dosing of the fantastic. This approach has served him well through several of the greatest fantasy novels of the past generation - The Lions of Al-Rassan foremost among them - and in Children of Earth and Sky he has done it again.
The historical inspiration this time is the fall of Sarantium (Constantinople) in 1453 to the invading Osmanlis (Ottomans). The novel takes place twenty-five years after this event with the Jaddite (Christian) kingdoms trying to overcome their internal divisions to fight back against the invaders but are undermined by some of their own cities, such as the mercantile powers of Seressa (Venice) and Dubrova (Dubrovnik), which are happy to trade with the rich invaders. This invokes the ire of the raiders and pirates of Senjan (Senj) who start preying on Seressan ships to fund their war against the Osmanlis. Political-religious conflict follows.
The book concerns, as is usual with Kay, the crossing of paths of several very different individuals. This time these characters include Pero Villani, an artist sent on a spying mission; Danica Gradek, a young woman who yearns to be a fighter and raider; Marin Djivo, a budding merchant; Damaz, a former slave turned into an elite djanni infantryman; and Leonora Valeri, a young woman sent into disgrace but who is turned into an agent for Seressa's government. Scores of other characters cross their paths, Kay spinning them into a tapestry of lives, tragedy, love and war which is utterly engrossing.
The book is vintage Kay in how it operates with history and character, but it is a little different in that it does have a strong side-focus on political intrigue, military campaigns and merchant rivalries. These are elements that Kay has written about before, but here they are more prominent and give the book additional texture. They also make the book more appealing to those fantasy fans who are interested more in action, warfare and backstabbing than in characterisation and mood, although this remains the primary focus of the book. Kay also explores the relationship between myth and history and stories, how a split-second decision on a battlefield can inspire legends and armies and heroes decades or centries later.
Kay's greatest skill has always been his ability to move between the large and small, showing how every person matters and how a quiet conversation between two people can shift the destinies of millions and change the fate of continents and empires, and he does that better than almost ever before in this novel.
The novel is a stand-alone but there are references to the events of The Sarantine Mosaic and The Lions of Al-Rassan, that long-term Kay fans will enjoy.
Children of Earth and Sky (*****) is Guy Gavriel Kay doing what he does best, and better than anyone else working in fantasy today: telling the story of empires and wars through the lens of characters so vivid and convincing that they feel real, and absorbing you into their lives. The novel will be available on 10 May 2016 in the UK and USA.