(2022) Guy Gavriel Kay, Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99, hrdbk, 600pp, ISBN 978-1-529-38517-5
All The Seas of the World is a standalone novel in the same world as The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Sarantine Mosaic, The Last Light of the Sun, Children of Earth and Sky and A Brightness Long Ago. Some of the characters will be familiar to readers of those novels and events loosely follow on from A Brightness Long Ago and, though a standalone novel, knowledge of the other novels may assist in keeping track of the geography and politics.
The story primarily follows Rafel and Lenia, also known as Nadia, trading and taking less legal work for hire. Legality does, however, depend on whose laws you consider important. Following a relatively simple assignment, they are pulled deeper and deeper into the politics of the area. Key figures find their help and information, often from being in the right or wrong place at the time, to be invaluable.
The book is set in a low fantasy world, loosely based on the Renaissance period in the Mediterranean. Many analogies can be drawn between book locations and real world locations Firenta is clearly an Italian city state, Florence perhaps, and Asharias is modelled on Istanbul for example. The three fantasy religions of Sun (Jaddites), Moon (Kindath) and Star (Asharites) could also be considered parallel to Christianity, Judaism and Islam and the cultures associated clearly draw inspiration from there. Warring states of Jaddites and Asharites provide the backdrop for the tale, with persecuted Kindath cast out from their ancestral home. While it is reasonable to see the sources of inspiration, it would, perhaps, be better not to expect these to map too closely to real historic events or people. Having said that, knowledge of the history of Italy and Turkey may allow you to take some shortcuts in understanding the geopolitical background, though that perhaps feels a bit like cheating especially if a reader compares this to other fantasy works' that have more original/fictional settings.
The geography and politics are a central part of the plot. The book does have the traditional map at the front showing the land and see as well as a few key cities and places. What it does not have is the political and religious borders. Keeping track of which regions or kingdoms are at war, or have been invaded, and which areas primarily follow which religion is complex. A reader can choose to follow the characters and not worry about this aspect and if you have read the other books you will have a head start. If you are frustrated by this kind of detail not being clear, then you may not enjoy this book as much or, perhaps, prefer to read the others in the series first.
The world building is incredibly detailed and rich: none of the cultures are shown in a two dimensional fashion.. Aspects inspired by cultures, which may be less familiar to the reader, are presented in accessible and interesting ways. For me, the Islamic inspired cultures were less familiar, but portrayed in such detail that no historical or cultural familiarity seemed required. However, I am in no position to comment on whether this was in an accurate, or a sensitive, way. The actions of raiding lands and taking slaves are criticised, but not attributed to only one culture: both the Jaddites and the Asherites are seen to do this. The persecution or tolerance of the Kindath is also not restricted to one group, but each are seen in different geopolitical areas and by varying individuals within those cultures.
The themes in the book include slavery and implied rape, but these are not current events within the novel, or described in any detail, but purely a character reflecting on this as something that had happened in their life and so changed its course. The novel also addresses women's roles and touches on how a woman who is an escaped slave might be received differently to a man. The former considered “ruined” and the latter a conquering hero. I found that the anger or emotion that you might expect in these circumstances is not really conveyed: we are told the character is angry, but this does not translate to their actions or decisions.
Nonetheless, this is a very interesting and layered novel, which draws you in and keeps you wanting more.
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