Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Microreview [Book]: All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay

If you want to feel sad about mosaics, exile and dolphins, Guy Gavriel Kay is absolutely your man. If you want to be cheered up? Not so much.

Sometimes authors get worn into their niche, so much so that, especially when they’re good, you have to remind yourself to rate each book just for itself, rather than against the rest of their work, because it’s not fair otherwise. Guy Gavriel Kay is one of those authors, at least for me. With the exception of the Fionavar Tapestry books (because they’re just something different to the rest of his stuff), everything he’s written that I’ve read is just… great, and so it’s hard coming into a new one with the weight of all those expectations behind it. If it’s good, well, that’s just to be expected. You’re ranking him on an unfair scale of… himself… where the “low end” is still a solid 8/10.

All Guy Gavriel Kay books must also be rated on the sorrow-o-meter, because he apparently loves to shred the souls of his readers (exquisitely, beautifully, tenderly… but shredding them nonetheless).

All the Seas of the World ranks middlingly on both of these scales (so, by other metrics, a great and terribly sad book).

The book is set in a very thinly veiled alternate version of the Mediterranean world in the latter half of the fifteenth century. The countries’ names have all been changed (sometimes subtly, sometimes unsubtly), as have those of people, places and groups, but the political and historical stories being invoked are pretty clearly shining through. It follows the events of Children of Earth and Sky and A Brightness Long Ago, looping in characters we’ve already met in this stories, but following the threads of other, new characters and their paths through the world, and focussing on different themes, as well as reflecting on some old ones.

Overwhelmingly, All the Seas of the World is a book about exile and homecoming and one’s place in the world. Both of the protagonists have been forcibly removed from their origins – one a Jew (the Kindath, in-world) expelled as a child from Spain/Esperaña (that’s one of the unsubtle ones), now a trader and sometimes corsair, and the other an Italian/Batiaran Christian/Jaddite women kidnapped as a child and raised as a slave/guard until her escape and joining of the corsair crew – and much of both of their stories is about them coming to terms with the lasting effects of their exiles, and what their life might mean to them moving forward. Many of the side characters riff on the same themes – a Muslim/Asharite scholar kidnapped and kept in Rome/Rhodias, writing an account of his captivity, another scholar living and working with him in Rhodias, having fled from Constantinople/Sarantium at its fall, another an Italian/Batiaran mercenary commander, spending every spring on campaign away from his much loved wife. Even briefly met characters have their lost places that we look back on. All of it builds together into a song of longing that runs throughout the whole story, hitting different beats but always on-theme. You might think that such a relentless monofocus on a single theme might dim the impact of the message, but by looking at the same feeling in different directions, from different people, often on opposite sides of the conflicts within the book, Kay manages to keep it fresh, keep it from becoming too much, or from the reader becoming sensitised to the rawness of it.

This awareness of the multi-faceted nature of the conflicts he describes is a long-standing strength of Kay’s, but I think one that is showcased more explicitly here than in some of his other works. The Middle Sea around which all the action takes place in the story is one full of both religious and political conflict – it’s the world in the aftermath of the fall of Constantinople, where the tension between Christian/Jaddite and Muslim/Asharite is palpable, and the dangers of this conflict, of corsair raids on coastal cities on both sides, are current and ongoing. It’s the world where Frances/Ferrieres and Spain/Esperaña are vying for dominance, where the various Italian/Batiaran city states exist in a constant state of war, where Jews/Kindath are expelled or murdered if found in Spain/Esperaña. It would be very easy for an author to pick a side in a single one of these conflicts, and make it a simple story, but the story is made the richer by there being good and bad on all sides we interact with in any depth. It is a complex world, as the world was back then, and a complex story to reflect that.

This complexity filters down to all levels of the story too – perhaps here to its detriment. All of the major players have complex lives, loves, losses, that are explored as we travel with them, and if we were just experiencing those from the very core cast, this would likely be fine. However, because we’re looping in old faces from previous books – which hasn’t generally been Kay’s mode previously – the story relies on you remembering why you care about certain characters from the past, what matters to them. And I… don’t entirely. There were several points when it took me a while to bring to mind exactly who someone was and why they mattered, and that feeling of floundering did drag the story down. There are an awful lot of faces in this story, and in his previous ones, and while the cast list at the start of the book is something of a help, it’s not quite sufficient to connect all the dots if you, like me, haven’t read A Brightness Long Ago since it came out in 2019 (and Children of Earth and Sky in 2016). The story does what it can to remind you, but that still leaves a little gap in many cases, because it’s hard to infodump subtly every time a character shows up. Some of them, there are no hints, because hints would run counter to what the reminder of that character is doing – there’s a statue of a woman encountered in a city visited by the main characters, which turns out to have been a non-main character in The Lions of Al-Rassan. The woman the statue represents has been forgotten, and the moment of it is about that forgetting, that passing of information that was once known into nothingness. There’s no real way this information could have been conveyed in-narrative without breaking some of the flow, ruining that moment, so I was left with a vague sense of irritation that I knew I should know her, but I did not (until I asked someone else, who had a better memory than I did). By doing all these call-backs – and there are a lot – Kay is risking them often not landing perfectly, and that missed landing is a minor point of disjoint in the reading experience. And that’s putting aside how they might come across to someone who has only read some of his previous works.

On the flip side, when they do land, a lot of these callbacks are incredibly evocative. There are repeated motifs that Kay likes to call on, shorthands for some of the core themes (of sad things) that run through each of his stories, and by dropping little reminders in here and there, when they work, he does very skilfully bring you back to that place of old sadness, in a way that mirrors the old griefs of the characters as they experience the events of the story. It is absolutely a borrowed glory, and one that wouldn’t have an impact on a new reader, but when you come to it from the right place, it does such a good and subtle job of playing on your feelings. The dolphins in the water outside Constantinople/Sarantium call all the way back to the events of The Sarantine Mosaic duology, for instance, which absolutely wrecked my heart, and so I got a nice little echo of that seeing them again.

Almost all of Kay’s historical fiction works exist in orbit around the void that is the fall of Sarantium. He has not (as yet) written a book about that event itself, and nor do I expect he will, but it exists throughout all the others, ahead and behind them, making itself known in little and large ways. All the Seas of the World is the first book looking firmly backwards at it, and as such, has the feel of endings and stories closing. I don’t know if that means his next works will look elsewhere, but that’s how it felt to me. But because it is a book drawing on all of those previous threads, highlighting them, and being able to look back with full knowledge, it felt a little like sometimes I could see the scaffolding that held the story together, rather than just the beautiful (sad) façade I’m used to getting. It was still good, still beautiful, still sad, but it didn’t quite have the magic of some of what has come before, and what magic it did have was often leaning heavily on its predecessors to truly work.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10 

Bonuses: +1 delicately handling a character from a very traumatised background and giving her a realistic and hopeful path forward
+1 saving the subtle intrusions of the fantastical for the moments where they'll have maximum impact/confusion

Penalties: -1 leaning too heavily on past books to really tug the heartstrings, rather than making new ways to hurt my soul

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference:  Guy Gavriel Kay, All the Seas of the World [Hodder & Stoughton, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea