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2023 in Books: "All the Seas of the World" by Guy Gavriel Kay

Always a fan of this universe and Kay's writing in it.

If you don't know Kay's "thing", a lot of his novels are set in an alt-Earth that very, very closely hews to the history and stories of our real Earth, often copping historical personages lightly if at all altered for his needs. This allows him to tell interesting stories in a familiar-ish setting (you'd be surprised how much one's own mind fills in the details from real history when reading these books) without having to worry about the nitpickers coming at him over small stuff.

Some of the books take place during his analog of Reconquista Spain (The Lions of Al Rassan, possibly my favorite of these books), some in the China of the Three Kingdoms era (River of Stars), some during the Justinian Era of the Byzantine Empire (Sailing to Sarantium), etc... they range over millennia of history, but threads bind them all together, if sometimes quite lightly.

This particular entry takes shortly after the Fall of Sarantium to the Asharites (read: the taking of Constantinople by the Ottomans). The western Jaddite/Christian world is in upheaval, Batiara/Italy is suffering under the weight of mercenary wars every summer between her various fractious small city states, the Pope/Western Patriarch in Rhodias/Rome is screaming for vengeance... things are messy.

Into this morass of doubt and violence step a pair of merchants; one, a Batiaran Jaddite woman who was taken by Asharites as a slave as a child, freed herself as an adult, and now wants some revenge. The other, a Kindath (Jew) whose family was expelled from Esperaña (figure it out), some burnt at the stake for trying to hide their Kindathness, the rest of whom resettled across various parts of both the Jaddite and Asharite worlds, worlds in which Rafel, this trader, now makes his living.

They decide to augment that living by offering to assassinate a local Khalif in one of the Asharite kingdoms in what is supposed to be North Africa (christ almighty, this would be was easier to write about if I just used our words for all of his fake stuff). From this event, many others spin out, including our plot. That's about all I'll say here about said plot other than to note that it's a) good b) moves along briskly and c) if you know anything about our real history you can figure out where a lot of things are going early, but the individual stories remain compelling and make it more than just historical fiction.

Kay seems very interested in how one's legacies are formed, where our stories end, in this entry. He's always been a bit of a romantic, I believe, dropping bits of poetry (he actually was/is a poet before becoming a novelist) throughout his novels, and injecting a bit of a magical element into things on the regular. In a pure historical fiction novel, I'd probably find that offputting, but since it's not purporting to any kind of realism, it ends up working quite well.

That said, the magical elements and, to be honest, the humor that lightened up the often violent vibe of his other works are both at low ebb in this entry. The acknowledgment at the end of this book states that this book was written during the isolation of the early COVID pandemic, and I think it shows. It's not The Road or anything, but it's pretty dark by Kay's own previous standards.

I don't think it suffers for that, though. Kay has always managed to portray this earth-analog's medieval past as ours was: rather violent, for almost everybody, yet without succumbing to the full-on grimdark turbo-violence of a George RR Martin or Joe Abercrombie bent. As entertaining as I can find those authors' books, I think Kay's books, including this one, succeed better as literature, if I can make that judgment without sounding like a total prick. He gets at human emotions and motivations and reactions better than most in the genre, I believe.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit, but suffered a bit of melancholy at the end of it. It's a world full of characters all searching for more permanence out of their homes, families, and faiths, with many (though not all) failing to find it. I hope Mr. Kay returns to this world to let us know how it's getting on again in the future.