There are fantasy novels that draw readers into magical worlds where we encounter unique races and fantastical creatures. We might find ourselves caught up in the hero’s quest, watching the development of characters we cheer on from the comfort of our favorite chair. Lovers of the fantasy genre appreciate these tropes. Even when we know the likely outcome, we don’t give up on the characters because we have a strong suspicion that things will work out in the end.
Then there are tales that defy expectations and genre tropes. We know we’re ready fantasy—or, at least, we think we are—but at some point we discover that the author has invited us on a truly unexpected journey.
Such was my experience reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel, All the Seas of the World. Although the novel best fits something like historical fantasy, it is something different, something unique to Kay’s style of “novels that never fall neatly into a category.”
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All the Seas of the World is a standalone novel, but, as some readers suggest, reading some of Kay’s other books, such as Children of Earth and Sky or A Brightness Long Ago will better prepare you for the world setting and the writing style. If you prefer reading a long series, this could work for you. If you prefer reading standalone novels, you’ll also be fine.
I try to reserve 5-star reviews for books I think I’d like to read again and that I would highly recommend to other readers. All the Seas of the World checks both boxes. However, I’m not drawn to read it again because it left me with good feelings or a desire to return to an exciting adventure. Rather, this is a tale made of complex layers, including genuine human suffering in a violent world, the quest for love, true faith, and a place to call home.
The main characters in this epic tale both find themselves adrift in the wild seas of kingdoms either embroiled in war or always on the brink. Rafel is a merchant and corsair, accompanied on his ship by Nadia (also known as Lenia), a self-described killer if not an assassin. Both Rafel and Lenia are far from home, trying to make their way in a tumultuous world when they find themselves at the center of events that result in profound political, economic, and religious impact.
As these events unfold, I found that it was not so much the action and adventure that carried me along as the two characters’ longing for something more. The narrator seems to think that their greatest longing is for home. I tend to agree. One character wisely notes that some people (such as Rafel and Lenia) “never really have a home, even if they settle somewhere. That becomes a place they live. Not the same thing. They go through their lives as if adrift on all the seas of the world. Maybe home for some is always the one they lost.”
If the old saying is true, that “home is where the heart is”, I wonder if Rafel and Lenia struggle to find a home because their hearts have been too damaged. And yet, throughout the story (not just at the end) I also found hope that both characters found a degree of healing and an acceptance of home, a mingling of what life became with what they had lost. Even if it’s not the home they were searching for.
A contemplative review
There are probably more professional, polished ways to review books, especially one of this caliber, but my preference is to simply respond to the themes that stood out to me most. If something catches my attention, causing me to look deeper into my own heart or into the ways of my own culture, there’s a chance that it might affect others in a similar way.
For now, I call it my contemplative response to the book.
Readers with a preference for a steady flow of action may be annoyed by the narrator’s frequent philosophical pondering. However, I found these to be minor interruptions that serve the story and writing style very well. I read the kindle edition and as I reviewed the passages I highlighted, I discovered that most were the philosophical asides. No surprise there.
Rather than summarize the story for you (you can find that in the book’s blurb or in other reader reviews), I’d like to share some of my favorite highlights. I think these sample passages better serve to attract (or turn away!) potential readers.
About the main characters
“…she had no real recollection of what she’d been. That girl on the farm. What she had thought and felt about anything. It was lost.”
“She didn’t think she was suited to peace and piety.”
“Trust was not natural for her. It was difficult.”
Rafel ben Natan
“Partnerships formed and dissolved all the time. You changed your life when life forced you to. Except in his experience, people driven from home—or stolen from home—didn’t like changes.”
“He tried to be that. Decent and honourable. Partly his nature, partly a sense that your reputation mattered.”
About unexpected involvement in larger geopolitical events
“Lives change, turn, pivot on small things, accidents of timing. We are proceeding in a given direction and then…we are not.”
“We can be changed, sometimes greatly, by people who come only glancingly into our lives and move on, never knowing what they have done to us.”
“Dreams, I have found, can carry you down paths daylight doesn’t allow.”
Some ponderings of my own…
There’s something about novels with epic battles that I sometimes find perplexing. Why are we so drawn to the struggle of good versus evil, where the good guys are represented by the kingdom whose values reflect those of the protagonist whom readers are encouraged to cheer for? Why do we long for vengeance against “evil” as much as Lenia does? In the end, is the death of enemy armies really satisfying? Does it make us better people? Does it create a better world, a place to call home? Sometimes it does, and that’s probably the goal. For me, the climatic battle at the end of this novel was not satisfying. Maybe that’s one of the the storyteller’s key points.
I also found the religious culture interesting, particularly as it is entangled with politics. As it is in the real world, some people are ardent believers, some are powerful leaders, and most follow along because it seems to work for them and the general culture. In most Western cultures, we have the freedom to question our political and religious leaders without fear of being locked up or persecuted. Even so, many people still align themselves with pastors, preachers, priests, patriarchs and popes who all exercise degrees of power over them. Maybe this is part of our longing for home.
My biggest disappointment with this book was getting a glimpse of magic only to have it fade into the mist in favor of politics and military issues. Rather than risk spoilers, I think this story would have gone in a very different direction had Kay chosen to develop some kind of magic system. But then, it wouldn’t have been an authentic to Kay’s style.
So if you prefer fantasy novels with deep magic or fantastical creatures, you’ll need to set that aside to read All the Seas of the World. If you’re looking for an epic adventure with tragic and beautiful characters set in a world inspired by Renaissance Europe, with stark similarities to our present global turmoil as well as our own personal longings, climb aboard and get ready to set sail on this new adventure.
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Note: My thanks to Penguin Random House Canada, Viking for providing an Electronic Advance Reader Copy via NetGalley for review.
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