My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A leisurely, beautiful almost-sort-of-fantasy set in Kay’s alternate historical world. Longtime readers will recognize references here to events and characters featured in quite a few of his other books.
The time period here is the (I believe) fifteenth century, and the action moves between recognizable versions of Croatia, Venice and Constantinople.
Danica Gradek is a young woman whose surviving family was forced to relocate after being attacked by raiders who kidnapped her beloved young brother. She is now from Senjan, an island known for (depending on whom you ask) its vicious pirates or its brave warriors who defend the borders and the Jaddite faith of the empire. (The location is based on Croatia’s Senj and the people known as the Uskoks – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senj.) Although it is uncommon, Danica is a warrior – she excels at archery, and her dream is to avenge her brother by killing Osmanli (Ottomans) who stole him and destroyed her home.
However, we soon learn, the bulk of the Osmanli raiders are actually kidnapped children. At a young age they are trained by their captors in a new faith and the ways of war. Their loyalties are often transferred utterly, and they are even grateful to the Osmanli for showing them the way to the ‘true faith’ and ‘salvation.’ The reader soon suspects what might’ve happened to Danica’s brother.
Meanwhile, in the Republic of Seressa, a young artist is picked for a dangerous job. The Osmanli Khalif has commissioned a portrait to be done in the Western style. Pero Villani has little to lose and much to gain – if he makes it back from his trip alive. The getting-back-alive part may be complicated by the fact that Seressa, in addition to hiring him for his artistic skills, also expects him to act as a spy – and possibly an assassin.
Also recruited to spy for Seressa is Leonora Valeri. After bearing an illegitimate child, her father murdered her lover and incarcerated her in a convent. She’s willing to agree to just about anything to gain a degree of freedom – even a false marriage and a dangerous mission.
And then, there’s Marin Djivo. The merchant is hoping to take over his father’s lucrative merchant business, managing ships & caravans, and running trade goods between people who, if not actively at war, enjoy a peace that’s fragile and uneasy at best. Raiders on land and pirates at sea are an unavoidable hazard in this line of work.
Naturally, all of these individuals (and many more) will intersect along the way. Seemingly small actions will have consequences that reverberate in time and space. The past affects the living (quite literally; the ‘fantasy’ element in this book is a ghost which can communicate with his grandchildren), and choices made now impact others’ lives and future lives.
The book has plenty of adventure and action – but somehow the overall experience is more contemplative than exciting. At times it works beautifully, but at times I also wished for just a bit more compelling forward-motion and plot tension.
Still; Guy Gavriel Kay remains one of my very favorite writers, and this is not one of the least of his accomplishments. Highly recommended.