Children Of Earth And Sky, by Guy Gavriel Kay
In many ways this is a deeply interesting novel, and it illustrates the author openly seeking to pursue a variety of agendas. Some of these agendas are ones I can wholeheartedly support, such as the value of wit and cleverness in a world where one is frequently in a variety of danger, or the agenda of recognizing the historical sacrifices of an unpopular and even piratical culture, showing how it is that cultures on the edges of civilizational battles do not always behave in ways that are approved by their more cultured fellows. Some of the agendas the author supports, though, especially as it relates to matters of religion and morality, are not ones that I am supportive of, and this book is certainly full of a great deal of awkwardness in how it demonstrates people and their behavior with a blase sense of tolerance or even approval of their wicked behavior even as it notes religious disapproval of certain things, especially in that it makes a great many immoral people seemingly heroic figures despite (or maybe even because of) their irregular conduct. I must admit that this book did not leave me to identify with as many people as the usual one by this author because of these matters.
This particular book can be said to be another one of the author’s Italian series of novels (like A Brightness Long Ago), in that it focuses on a motley group of people centered around the relationship between port cities like Venice and Ragusa with the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires who seek to dominate the Balkans and whose affairs and warfare must be navigated. Through various eyes and in various locales we see ambassadors and spies operating, we see a painter struggling to fulfill a commission without getting himself killed, we see an old dowager Byzantine Empress struggling with the loss of power that came about when her city was sacked by the Ottomans decades before, and we see the lives that are caught in the continual conflict among formal armies on the sides of Christians and Muslims as well as various bandit groups and militia forces that are imperfectly under the control of either side. The end result is a combustible tale of bravery and the struggle to build one’s own life in the face of heavy pressures from outside and a difficulty in understanding how or why things happen and by what design we exist.
Indeed, this sort of book is likely a test of what an author can identify. Do you identify with the Venetian artist sent far from home and put in danger in order to gratify the artistic desires of a bloodthirsty Ottoman sultan? Do you identify with the piratical young woman who sleeps around and casually kills others with a desire to avenge the losses suffered by her family due to Balkan wars between Christians and Muslims? Do you identify with the Italian noblewoman who is rescued from a nunnery in order to pretend to be the wife of a doctor and then seeks to find her own way that does not involve returning home to her cruel and bullying father? Do you identify with the young man taken from his family and village and trained to be a brutal and bloodthirsty Muslim warrior for the Ottomans only to find himself torn by memories of his old life and the realization that his sister is miraculously alive instead of having been killed at his own hand? Or do you identify with various minor characters, such as an urbane ambassador who hates his posting in frigid Prague or the merchant seeking a good wife and profit while maintaining his honor? There are a great deal of choices here, but most of them are not really good, they are just choices among various types of ordinary and flawed people.