All the Seas of the World
“Not since Tolkien has a fantasy wordsmith wielded English like a rapier rather than a broadsword.”
Set in the same quasi-Renaissance world as A Brightness Long Ago and Children of Earth and Sky, the author gives us a pair of scoundrels, Nadia bint Dhiyan and Rafel ben Natan, both merchants and privateers who have taken on a mission to assassinate a powerful potentate, the khalif of Abeneven. This sets off a chain of events that lead to the capture of a city, the beginning of a war some call holy.
While both characters strive to seek some justice, they are unable to effect any meaningful change for the better, and while this seems to be the main thrust of the book, the true topics are conflicts depicted by various regions.
First there is the Jaddite religion, which obviously is Kay’s fictional version of Christianity, rife with internecine conflict as seen in the early days of Catholic Rome. Set opposite to the Jaddite is the Osmanlis, the Islamic analogue of the Ottoman Empire. The two faiths constantly struggle for supremacy in this fantasy/Mediterranean-esqe world.
Second is the Kindath people, the analogues to the Jewish people whose ability to survive defines them. No matter what they do, how much they achieve, they know they will never be accepted by society. Like the Jews, they do what they can to succeed without causing the rest of the world to view them as an apparent threat.
While Rafel judges every action on how it will impact his Kindath family and community, Nadia wrestles with her past. As a child she was abducted by Osmanli slavers, so she views everything Osmanli through the lens of her hatred. It’s this hatred that, when it begins to slowly die, that provides a subtle hint as to her true character. Neither good nor evil, Nadia is a person the reader can identify with because of her bias, while Rafel is relatable because he is a man who must walk the tightrope of other peoples’ perception of the world. He is bound by their prejudices and must somehow rise above, to find hope where there is none.
As a character-driven fantasy, this books fires on all cylinders. As an allegory about religion, oppression and Renaissance society as a whole, it works just as well. Taken as a whole, the book brings pathos, humor, poetry, stirring action to the reader, offering the gift of a beautifully written yarn that draws on in with its boundless imagination.
Kay writes with lyrical beauty of this thinly disguised world, creating a historical fantasy that while sometimes bleak, always finds spots of brightness to urge the reader to keep turning the pages. Not since Tolkien has a fantasy wordsmith wielded English like a rapier rather than a broadsword.