Title: Children of Earth and Sky
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Are there LGBT characters? Barely. There is one character who is gay, and has two or three point of view chapters, but does not play a significant role in the story.
Brief summary / book review: Set in the same universe as some of his other works, notably the Sarantine Mosaic and Lions of al’Rassan, Children of Earth and Sky is a pseudo-historical work that’s reminiscent of medieval Venice, Dubrovnik, and Istanbul — here, called Seressa (a riff off La Serenissima), Dubrava, and Asharias, respectively.
The story is relatively simple — a group of travelers go from Seressa, Senjan (a small town that harbors pirates), and Dubrava to Asharias. They learn things about themselves and each other along the way. I realize this sounds relatively glib and not terribly exciting but Kay takes the time to explore the depths of each character, examine what their place is in history, and how their choices can ripple outwards in unexpected ways and even change the course of history. These are not glib ideas he’s plumbing here.
That said, in the context of Kay’s work, this is a middling work of his. He’s had much stronger books. The glaring weakness with this one, from a critical perspective, is that Kay pulls his punches, which is unlike him. There’s no emotional payload that detonates at the end of this book, like it does for most of his others. Things just sort of…happen. And people turn out mostly fine. And with the exception of two characters (a priestess and a wayward soldier), nobody really changes by the end of the book. It just sort of…ends?
Still, “middling” for Kay is hell of a lot better than most books by other people, so is it worth a read? Absolutely. But if you’re looking for an entry for Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, I’d start with Lions of al’Rassan.
As for the gay character in this book, he’s relatively shallow and insipid. There is another character who is hinted at being gay, but frankly, I’m over such subtleties. If you’re going to include an LGBTQ character in your text, make them visible. The time for innuendo is exhaustingly past.
And here’s my larger disappointment with this work (within the context of this blog series). There were several moments where it seemed as if a significant character was suggested to potentially be gay, but that never turned out to be the case.
One of the reasons why I enjoy reading Kay so much is that he clearly treasures and values love and intimate connections, the way people find each other and entwine their souls with each other. The way he’s able to explore their relationships, their love, and all that goes into it, is easily his biggest strength as a writer. He has gorgeously sketched out characters — complex, sensitive men and dazzling women who burn bright on his pages. It’s clear that he loves women, given the way he writes about them. But he also mainly values them in the context of a heterosexual relationship.
Which is fine! To be clear, I am not trying to suggest that he should write a gay or lesbian or nonbinary romance into his book, or that he’s somehow at fault for writing straight romances. I would never presume to tell an artist what they can or cannot create.
When it comes to gay (or lesbian) characters, Kay has thus far fallen very short. He clearly tries to include them without making it feel tokenistic, but in the works I’ve read (Tigana, Song for Arbonne, Lions of al’Rassan, The Sarantine Mosaic, and now this one), he has yet to make an LGBT character a central character, and deliver that character the romance his best other characters have lived through.
(Yes, it is hinted that one of the main characters in Lions of al’Rassan is bisexual — but it is only that, just a hint. Fuck hints. LGBT readers everywhere deserve better.)
If anything, his gay characters are always verging on uncomfortable stereotypes — they’re almost always seemingly perfumed, fey, leering at the main characters. Not all of them are like that, of course, but it’s happened enough that it begins to resemble a pattern and increasingly takes me out of his works more and more.
(Tigana spoiler incoming — skip to next paragraph to pass over it) The most interesting gay character he’s written so far, in the books I’ve read, was in Tigana, but, spoiler alert, he gets killed, like, 5 pages into the book. Sure, he’s one of those perfumed fey lechers I just described above, but that was at least in part an act, to make people around him underestimate him. How much more interesting would it have been if it was his father who was killed, and he got to go on the hero’s journey instead?
(End Tigana spoilers) Again, to be clear, this isn’t me telling — or even asking — Kay to write more LGBT characters. As I’ve said before, I’ve no interest in telling artists what they can create. This is just me being a reader, expressing my wishes, that one of fantasy’s preeminent writers would apply the same lavish care and sensitivity to his LGBT characters that he does his straight characters. Obviously, he’s still one of my favorite writers and I’ll be reading everything he puts out. It’s just that I know he’s capable of doing better. I wish he would.
About the ‘Are There LGBT Characters’ series of posts: Being a gay reader, I am interested in LGBT books, but I haven’t always seen reviews clearly note if there are LGBT characters and how significant they are. These mini reviews are my way of addressing this problem.