It’s tricky being a fantasy author. If you’re not immediately accused of copying George RR Martin, you’ll most probably be pigeonholed with that other RR bloke within minutes.
Indeed, Guy Gavriel Kay has previously drawn comparisons to both JRR and GRR, but those are not entirely fair. While there is certainly more than a dash of Martin/War of the Roses-like political intrigue to his latest, Children Of Earth And Sky, as well as a hint of the ‘unexplained’ and magical, Kay is very much his own writer.
In this novel, his prose is direct and free of any lyrical pretence – much more than most fantasy writers, yet his world is decidedly fantastical, complete with book-opening map and all.
It doesn’t take a lot of historical knowledge to quickly realise the book’s setting is heavily inspired by Renaissance-era Eastern Europe and Middle-East. Vast empires, warring khalifs, travelling artists, wealthy city-states and Mediterranean trading ships cast such a thin veil over its derived influence that it’s a real wonder why Kay didn’t simply place his story and characters in the real thing.
Despite the slightly distracting familiarity of the setting, the story grips, and does so on the strength of the characters Kay crafts. In particular, there’s the young Danica, a skilled fighter avenging her family with a passion that would make Arya Stark and Liam Neeson proud, against the backdrop of the oppressive Ottoman – sorry, Osmanli – Empire. The narrative is brisk, the motivations are direct, and the world is rich and richly decorated, if a tad too directly borrowed.
Kay weaves her and the other engaging characters into a web of intrigue, war, romantic history and just a little speculative fantasy. It works as well not just in where he recalls the genre’s giants, but in where he stands apart from them.