Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel is set in the same world as his previous two, Children of Earth and Sky and A Brightness Long Ago, but although the three books are closely linked, they are separate stories and I’m sure you could read this one as a standalone if you wanted to.
The world to which I’ve just referred is a fictional world which closely resembles the area surrounding the Mediterranean during the 15th century. Countries and cities are given different names (Italy becomes Batiara, Spain is Esperaña, Venice is Seressa) and the characters belong to one of three religions which clearly correspond to the main three religions in that part of the world at that time. The Asharites (Muslims) worship the stars, the Jaddites (Christians) worship the sun and the Kindath (Jews) worship the two moons, one blue and one white, which both shine in the sky. This third novel is set just after the Jaddite city of Sarantium has fallen to the Asharite Osmanlis, who have renamed it Asharias – like our own world’s Constantinople which fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 and would become Istanbul.
Some of the characters we met in A Brightness Long Ago appear again in this book, but the focus is mainly on two new characters. First, there’s Lenia Serrano, a young woman who was abducted by Asharite raiders as a child and raised as a slave. Now free, she longs to return home to Batiara but, convinced that her years in slavery will have brought shame upon her family, home is the one place she’s determined to avoid. Rafel ben Natan, our other protagonist, is a Kindath merchant whose family fled persecution in Esperaña some years earlier. Rafel’s brother has disappeared without trace, leaving Rafel responsible for his sister-in-law and her children.
As the novel opens, Lenia and Rafel have been hired by two pirate brothers to carry out the assassination of the khalif of Abeneven. Their decision to accept this assignment brings them life-changing wealth, but also has huge consequences for the balance of power between rival states, bringing the world to the brink of war.
Some readers may be put off by the labelling of Kay’s novels as ‘fantasy’, but other than the alternate names for people, places and religions, and one or two very subtle supernatural elements, this book (like most of his others) is much closer to historical fiction than it is to traditional fantasy. Setting his story in a thinly-disguised version of Renaissance Europe gives Kay an opportunity to explore that period of history while being freed from the constraints of having to stick to historical fact. However, in this particular book, there are also some obvious parallels with today’s world; exile and displacement are major themes, with various characters being forced to leave their own countries because of war, persecution or other reasons and then either searching for somewhere new to make their home or trying to find a way to return.
This is a beautifully written novel, but I do think Kay’s writing style is probably a bit of an acquired taste. Much as I like his books, I’m starting to find his habit of going off on tangents to explore the lives of minor characters and the heavy messaging around choices and the consequences of our actions very repetitive. These most recent books are not his best, in my opinion – his earlier ones seemed to have stronger plots and a tighter focus, so if you’re new to his work I would recommend starting with one of those; Tigana is my favourite and The Lions of Al-Rassan is also very good (and set in this same two-mooned world several centuries earlier). Readers who’ve already enjoyed some of his other historical fantasy novels should enjoy this one too; I did and am looking forward to reading the remaining ones I still haven’t read.
Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.