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book review
  • Title: All the Seas of the World
  • Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Publisher: Penguin Random House
  • Pages: 528

Handout

Guy Gavriel Kay is not afraid to repeat himself – perhaps because he’s such a dedicated student of history.

The celebrated Canadian novelist returns to his fantastic version of 15th-century Eurasia in All the Seas of the World, a sequel of sorts to 2019′s A Brightness Long Ago. Kay revives familiar characters and introduces new ones as his plot charts a seafaring course across a violent world – all while repeating themes of exile and free will that have long shaped his work. These micro-variations in theme come to shine brighter in his graceful, melancholic style.

The story opens with a pair of corsairs landing on a moonlight strand to carry out an assassination. The first is Rafel Ben Natan. His people, the Kindath, have been largely nomadic since they were exiled from their native country of Esperana during Rafel’s youth – Kay’s clear analogue for the 1492 expulsion of Jewish people during the Spanish Inquisition. His partner is Nadia bint Dihiyan, an escaped slave who was kidnapped by raiders who resemble the Barbary pirates that terrorized the Mediterranean from the 16th to 19th centuries.

When their contract results in an unexpected fortune, both Rafel and Nadia are catapulted into the turbulent politics of their time by their sudden wealth and power. The squabbling city states of the west, resembling the Catholic Papal States of the Renaissance, are uniting for war against the eastern emperor who sits in the conquered city of Sarantium, which echoes the 1453 fall of Constantinople under Ottoman sultan Mehmed II. Our heroes are in the middle, trying to figure out where their allegiances lie.

The actions sweeps from set piece to set piece. Venice, Rome and Florence are just some of the cities paralleled in the novel. Their vivid depictions add colour to the story and, if you’re paying attention, tell you something about the historical events that shaped them.

Despite the grandiose world-building, this is still a tale of empire from the margins. Rafel and Nadia might rub shoulders with the high and mighty, but they are never welcomed as equals. Rafel’s people are persecuted with all the enmity of real-world antisemitism, and Nadia is a woman – an ex-slave no less. The novel is scattered with delicious moments where they reveal their wealth to leave other, prejudiced characters agape.

There are also minor characters who do not come from privilege, yet play a significant role in the events of the novel. We see short glimpses into their lives, and then cut ahead to decades later as they near their end. Their contributions to the world are shaped by the events of the novel but only manifest much later. This is Kay showing us the long, convoluted arc of history – or “Fortune’s wheel,” as he puts it. Other minor characters appear to be destined for great things, only to die futile, meaningless deaths. Through his cast, Kay is building a careful argument for the unpredictability of the future.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Nadia’s arc. She is not just struggling with decisions about her newfound wealth and status – she is also grappling with the new experience of having agency as a woman. She can return to her lost home, or seek new horizons. She can even seek revenge.

But as Nadia begins to make choices, her self-doubt only grows: about her sexual and romantic orientation, about her goals in life and even about what name she prefers for herself. As Kay writes in the novel’s beginning, “There are many different ways for a home to be lost, and for the world to become defined by that loss.”

The most powerful and complex thread here is Nadia’s fear to seek out her surviving family. She is terrified that she will be cast out for having been sexually assaulted while enslaved. It takes a very, very long time before she is able to shed the stigma and work through her trauma.

For all the globetrotting the characters do, their actions are ultimately motivated by a search for home. A way out of their exiles where they can love and be loved by friends and family without oppression.

This is familiar territory for Kay: many of his novels have centered on these questions, most notably the prequel to this one. But All the Seas of the World finds a way to reframe the familiar through new, compelling characters, making it one of Kay’s finest novels yet. By shifting the perspective slightly, we see how universal the experience of finding a self is – of finding a home in a world of chance and circumstance. Perhaps that is the point.

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