Every three years, like clockwork, Guy Gavriel Kay puts out a new historical fantasy masterpiece and I get to slowly luxuriate in its beauty as I stroll through the pages. This year we have All the Seas of the World, a hauntingly thoughtful tale about the nature of home, exile, and finding a place of belonging. It is a very beautiful read and one of my favorite books of the year. It eschews a more centralized focus that some of his other books have in favor of an anthological story with a multitude of viewpoints that all center around how people cope with being displaced. With current world events, especially those going on with Ukraine, this book could not have timed its publication better.
Something I have learned after a decade of reading Kay novels is that it doesn’t really matter what the book is about—especially what the book ‘says’ it’s about. I am going to read it, and I am going to love it. The back cover of Seas would tell you that the book is about assassins in the night, dangerous corsairs, and clever seafaring merchants. And while it is about all of those things, it’s really about religious displacement as well as many other kinds of displacement. Seas has two core protagonists who take up about 50% of the page space and a plethora of other short POVs that act as shades of variation on the stories of our leads. Thrown into this mix are a number of returning characters from both A Brightness Long Ago and Children of Earth and Sky that allow this book to feel both like a standalone story and a sequel simultaneously.
Our aforementioned two protagonists are Rafel and Nadia. Rafel is a Kindath (who are, I believe, analogous to the Jews) who was forced to flee his life when religious purges began. Since then, his family has been living in one tenuous slum after another and he has become a sea merchant. The characters go through so much growth and change throughout the book that it is hard to nail down their identity in a single description. My best attempt at describing Rafel is as a man who cannot return to the home he knew, so he chooses to make a living as a businessman with no port of call. After having his entire identity stolen from him by the tides of political upheaval, he seeks to gain relevance as a merchant so that he can never be swept away again and have some ability to navigate the waters around him.
Nadia takes this idea one step further as a representative of someone with almost no identity of home at all. Taken as a slave when she was a child, the only culture and place she knew is that of her master. After she murders him and escapes to Rafel’s ship before the book begins, she rejects all association with this ‘home’ and is left with nothing. Through Nadia, we can see another lens into the importance of having a home and what happens to an individual when they are stripped of any place of belonging. Nadia spends the book meeting a number of kind, cruel, and interesting people who all offer her new homes with different trappings and she must spend the book deciding who she is and where she wants to anchor her life.
Intermixed with these two are tens of other accounts of minor characters who all have their unique story of how they came to lose their homes. This has the collective effect of diluting your attachment to any one character but strengthening the themes around examining the importance of home and what exile can do to a person. As a result, Seas is a slower and more thoughtful story than some of Kay’s other work, but that doesn’t make it any less powerful. It’s a sad book, but more in a constant low-key bummer at the way the world works kinda way. What is wonderful is how Kay takes these persistent problems from our real world and shows the variety of clever ways resourceful people try to ameliorate them.
The prose, as always, is astoundingly powerful. I always underestimate Kay’s ability to devastate the reader emotionally with a single sentence. He is probably my favorite writer aestetically bar none. Kay’s way of bringing focus to the small things in life never ceases to amaze. My favorite passage of the book is a simple line between two characters with little connection on how you never know when it might be the last time you see someone due to lives diverging. The book eschews an explosive climax in favor of a constant deep burn that always keeps you thinking and introspecting. Seas is one of those rare books that makes you more present in your life and causes you to think more deeply about those around you. I found myself calling old friends and rebuilding connections that had loosened due to the pandemic thanks to this book. It is a very good read.
Unsurprisingly, All The Seas Of The World is a masterpiece with a really important subject matter. It has very quickly become my favorite book about what ‘home’ means and helped me be more appreciative of the home I have and more empathetic towards those who have lost their own. It’s a glacier of a book, slow-moving and beautiful in its splendor. I very much recommend you check it out.
Rating: All The Seas Of The World – 10/10