Book Review: “Children of Earth and Sky” by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay may be known to many as a fantasy author, but his new novel, Children of Earth and Sky, is more an alternate Renaissance history than anything else. There’s just the barest whiff of magic thrown in there, but even without it, Kay has created a rich and absorbing epic that you can really get lost in.

I’ll start out with the first thing that really excited me about this book: it’s a standalone! It’s not uncommon these days for fantasy authors to create rich, complex political worlds for their stories to take place in — just look at A Song of Ice and Fire. What’s less common is for those authors not to draw out their stories for three, four, five, or even more books. Often, that’s awesome, as in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire or anything by Brandon Sanderson. But it can also be exhausting waiting for the next book to come along, or trying to keep up with ever-changing political machinations. Children of Earth and Sky gets in and gets out, weaving a complex tale that is nonetheless finished once you close the book. I appreciate that.

The book traces the lives of several different characters. For starters, there’s Danica, a young woman who’s as skilled with a bow as any man and longs to avenge her family, Pero, an artist who’s been sent as a spy to paint the portrait of possibly the most dangerous man in the world, and Leonora, a woman disowned by her family who’s daring to build a life for herself. Kay writes from the perspective of several other characters in the course of the narrative, many more than once, but these were the three that I was most invested in. I liked how Kay explored these characters’ lives with no clear agenda, instead expertly illustrating the ways in which they affect one another’s lives and the world. It’s an oddly heartwarming book, despite a lot of violence and misery that happens along the way.

If I had one criticism of the story, it would be that women — especially minor characters — are often treated like props in Kay’s narrative. Although Kay does provide the reader with a varied cast of female protagonists with varying degrees of agency and power, it’s things like a group of nameless courtesans being beheaded for obeying the commands of the wrong man that I can’t get over. I know the story is inspired by history, so Kay wants to realistically depict how women might have been treated…but it’s also a fantasy, and I’m not on board with this fantasy — and many others written by men — frequently depicting sex workers as victims of violence. It’s a cheap trick, meant to please those shocked and titillated by sex and violence. Of course, you should understand that this is a very small part of Children of Earth and Sky, only a few sentences here and there that reinforce this cliche. It didn’t keep me from enjoying the book, but it does prevent me from recommending it wholeheartedly.

Definitely read this book if you want to enjoy a compelling alt-history!

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review.