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Review: All the Seas of the World, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Characters you root for and important themes add up to an enjoyable read

Guy Kavriel Kay is one of Canada’s most accomplished and well-known authors. Starting with The Summer Tree (1984), the first volume in The Fionavar Tapestry, he has written over ten books since then, and reached commercial and critical success. His books are loosely categorized as historical fantasy, but he resists that label. The books take place in an Earth-like settings, and mirror various times in Earth history, such as medieval Spain, Tang Dynasty China, Renassiance Italy, or Byzantium. They are not truly “historical” in a strict sense, although Kay does extensive research on the eras that inspire his settings.

HIs new novel, All the Seas of the World (2022) is set in the same Renaissance-inspired world that inspired The Sarantine Mosiac (two books published in 1998 and 2000) plus Children of Earth and Sky (2016), and All the Brightness Long Ago (2019), his two most recent novels.

A Deadly Mission…

A darkened ship sails into a secluded harbor at night, anchoring out in the bay and sending a smaller ship carrying two men and a woman to shore on a deadly mission: to assassinate the khalif of Abeneven, a city in Majriti. A murder not prompted by religious fervour or personal revenge by the assassins. This was strictly business, an assignment paid for by others seeking a bold move to upset the balance of power and increase their own wealth and influence.

Thus begins All the Seas of the World. In it, Kay returns to the Renaissance-inspired world of some of his previous books, including his last two published novels. It is a stand-alone book from these others, in that you don’t have to be familiar with them in order to enjoy this book. I can testify to that, as I haven’t read the others.

Kay is an excellent writer, and his lyrical prose is on full display in this book. In the book he examines themes of exile, identity, faith and belonging through the lens of the two main characters, Nadia bint Dhiyan and Rafel Ben Natan, the two co-owners of the ship that bring those assassins to shore.

Nadia is more than just a co-owner, she is also one of the assassins. A woman captured into slavery as a child, she has freed herself by killing her owner and stealing some jewels by which she paid for passage on the ship owned by Rafel. Some years later she is now part-owner of the ship.

Nadia seeks revenge against the Asharites, the followers of the god Ashar. Her previous owner followed that faith, and they not only enslaved her but have engaged in a series of conquests that have made them a powerful empire in their own right. The raid that enslaved Nadia also killed her parents and separated her from her brother. After enduring these losses and the years of servitude that followed, Nadia is trying to build a new life for herself.

Rafel was also driven from his home as a child by the Jaddite rulers of his home country of Esperana. But it was not only Rafel and his family who suffered this fate. All who belonged to the Kindath faith were expelled by the Jaddites and forced into exile, for they are not exactly welcomed with open arms in any country. Rafel also seeks to create some security for himself and his parents, and he is doing that by his work as a corsair/pirate/merchant. The daring assignment that brings he and Nadia to the dark shore at the beginning of the novel is not the type of work they have done before, but it has the potential to make them very wealthy if they succeed.

These two characters form the heart of the novel. They are finely drawn characters that you quickly root for. Both of them are seeking a safe place in the world and both struggle to find it. As the repercussions spiral out from the death of the khalif, they face danger, heartache, and redemption. They may lose all they have gained. Or they may gain more than they could have dreamed. We read with bated breath, waiting to see which will be the outcome for them.

But although this book has plenty of action to keep the pages turning, it is not just an action thriller. There spaces of contemplation along the way. The book’s omniscient narrator intersperses the story with reflections on the themes of the book: belonging, faith, chance and circumstance, and the meaning of home. The book also follows the fate of minor characters in short interludes sprinkled as asides throughout the story. This reminds us that while these people are not important to the overall grand narrative of the book, they are still important to those they love, and indeed, to themselves. The lives of small people matter, too. It’s a good reminder when viewing the sweep of epic events in our world as well.

Historical Fantasy?

The setting of the book is lush and well-described. You can tell that Kay has spent a great deal of time developing this world. It has a long history to anchor it and is full of cultural details that make it come alive. But I have to admit that this is where the book falls down for me, although I think I am in the minority on this. Kay has made a very good living on his books, most of which are set in Earth-like periods of history. As I mentioned earlier, this one is based on Renaissance Europe. The Kindath stand in for the Jews; the Asharites, the Muslim;  the Jaddites; the Christians. Esperana stands in for Spain.

It drives me slightly crazy. Perhaps it’s the historian bent in me, but I kept getting distracted by trying to figure out “who” these people-groups are and “where” they were located in “real” history. Kay makes it fairly obvious, so it’s not that hard, but then I end up with annoyance. I have mentioned before that I struggle to enjoy fantasy books that are set in these “faux-Earth” settings. Because I feel like if these historical eras are worthy of being explored in stories, then explore them as they are.

However, I understand the appeal of using made-up places and religions that stand in for the real ones. You can fudge through some of the harder tenets of the religion in question and avoid the tough compromises or issues of faith that real people had to work through in those real time periods. You can paint the real religion that you don’t like in nasty strokes and idealize the ones you prefer. Or, you can make all religions resemble what you might think is the ideal religion. Increasingly today, that equates to one where there are no strict commandments or exclusivity but where anything goes.

Sometimes Kay falls into these traps in this book. I pick on the religious aspects because the question of how people of faith work out the living of that faith in the real world interests me. To me, this was the most glaring downside of the book. It disappoints me when authors take the easy road out in stories such as this.

On the other hand…

However, using fantasy settings and religions to stand in for the actual ones can remove readers from knee-jerk reactions and help them to examine the role of faith, prejudice, and persecution with a more objective eye. I think that is what Kay is striving for here, and in his other books. Why should a whole group of people be expelled from their homes simply because of their faith? By naming those people the Kindath instead of the Jews, perhaps it helps us to see more clearly the utter inhumanity of that action.

So, despite my slight rant on fake vs real, I enjoyed All the Seas of the World. I love Kay’s prose that brings the two main characters to vivid life, and the way he uses the plot, characters, and meditative interludes throughout the book to explore the important themes he writes about.

All the Seas of the World is another solid entry into Guy Gavriel Kay’s impressive body of work. Four stars from me!

All the Seas of the World will be released May 17, 2022.

Note: I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley as part of a pre-publication promotion. I was not expected to provide a positive review in return.