All the seas of the worldGuy Gavriel Kay (Berkley 978-0-59344-104-6, $28.00, 528pp, hc) May 2022.
Based on absolutely no evidence other than a handful of conversations, I suspect Guy Gavriel Kay’s large and loyal readership spans a fairly definable spectrum. At one end are pure fantasy readers, who enjoy its twisted take on real historical settings as a kind of world-building in its own right, even if the fantastical or supernatural elements are at times minimal. At the other are readers of literature and historical fiction, drawn to complex characters, plot-driven plots, and Kay’s keen sense of the sometimes random tectonics of history. Somewhere in between, I suspect, are the majority, including both devotees who have come to learn his coined nomenclature for nations, cities, geographical features and religions, and first-time readers who may find it confusing at first – but who come to appreciate that the dialectic between invented and altered history is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game. The latter may be one of the reasons why All the seas of the world is as much a standalone novel as 2019’s A clarity long agoeven though it shares a setting (roughly the Mediterranean in the late Middle Ages) and features many of the same characters.
Not unusual for Kay, the novel begins with a rather small-scale plot and gradually expands its scope to a harrowing conclusion, filling in the stories and motivations of its central characters along the way. A privateer named Rafel ben Natan has moored his ship near the town of Abeneven, where he and two companions – including a woman disguised as a boy – are to carry out an assigned assassination. Although it doesn’t quite go to plan, Rafel and wife Nadia (whose real name we’ll soon learn) end up with some substantial treasures that have the effect of making them independently wealthy for the rest of the novel, at such point that they can finance the construction of their own warship. It may seem counter-intuitive for a novelist to begin by providing two of his main characters with a large bank account that could normally be saved for a happy ending, but the effect is to ensure that their decisions throughout will be based about something other than necessity or mere expediency – and the characters struggling to make decisions are at the heart of any Kay novel, especially when those decisions turn out to be unexpectedly consequential. ”Lives change, turn, pivot on little things, accidents of timing”, we are reminded more than once. Both Rafel and Nadia are exiles, Rafel because of her Kindath religion and Nadia, a former slave who taught herself an impressive array of survival skills, because she killed her former master. After meeting the two brothers who had ordered the assassination – and who themselves turn out to be quite sketchy – their story entangles them with a sizable cast of well-realized characters, the most prominent of whom is the much-feared army commander mercenary from Acorsi, whom we met at A clarity long ago but who gains much depth and complexity here, proving to be a surprisingly thoughtful and humane leader for someone with such a fearsome reputation. We also hear again from legal adviser Guidanio Cerra, whose haunting, haunting voice gave such resonance to the previous novel.
As usual, Kay deploys an impressive variety of these narrative voices, and the occasional first-person shift has something like the effect of hearing a skilled soloist in a symphony (for some reason, I’m thinking oboes or bassoons, but maybe it’s just me). As its isolated and exiled characters struggle to find identities, communities, families (the two main characters search for their brothers in particularly emotional moments), they gradually gain the trust not only of each other, but also of the reader. There’s no shortage of romance in the tale, either – including some gay and bisexual relationships, credibly handled with the caution demanded by the historical period. While the novel’s supernatural affiliations are typically restrained—mainly taking the form of a mysterious voice that Nadia hears at crucial moments and a mystical white stag that briefly appears—Nadia herself (who ceases to be referred to as Nadia by chapter five, as if to emphasize her quest for identity) is one of the most deeply realized characters Kay has ever created. While the central story is largely her own, even the supporting characters gain a haunting presence, especially when we’re offered brief glimpses of their future lives. While the catalog of these characters offered at the start of the novel might seem daunting at first (at least to me, but then I was terrified of the list of characters at the start of War and peace), on-the-ground narrative is a model of clarity and focus, and All the seas of the world is as rich a tapestry as we’ve come to expect from Kay – perhaps one of the richest.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Surveys (2006 BSFA Award; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo candidate 2011), and Comments (2011), and his The evaporation of genres: essays on fantastic literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Previous books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Prize, 1981), Harlan Ellison: On the Edge of Eternity (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and david lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic 1950s Novels in 2012, with a similar set for the upcoming 1960s. He received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His series of 24 lectures How Great Science Fiction Works appeared in The Great Courses in 2016. He received six Hugo nominations, two for his critical collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for over 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and others like it in the May 2022 issue of Venue.
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